Has ‘shockvertising’ passed its sell-by date?

By the beginning of the 21st Century, due predominantly to the advances in digital technology, it was estimated that the average consumer was being bombarded by around 3,000 marketing messages a day (Lasn 1999). This situation caused a dilemma for marketers, who were left wondering how they could make their message stand out is such a crowded marketplace. It was the marketers at the fashion brand Benetton who are credited with having come up with the answer to this quandary – Shockvertising!

benettonShockvertising is a form of promotion and advertising that deliberately sets out to “offend its audience” (Gustafson and Yessel 1994). It achieves this objective by including in its audio/visual promotions messages that are breach social norms as a means of attracting the consumer’s attention and encouraging a change in behaviour, which for commercial organisations was designed to increase sales.  This new form of advertising at the time included messages containing disgusting images, sexual innuendos and/or a focus on social taboo subjects. Benetton took the latter approach with its ‘shockvertising’ campaigns, using is colour branded promotions to raise social awareness of issues such as HIV and domestic violence (see picture).

speedingThe phase of shockvertising also captured the attention of government departments, who saw this approach as a means of changing social behaviour. In the UK, for example, the shockvertising message to reinforce the government’s message to discourage drink-driving and speeding. In the latter case, a video of a young girl explaining the effects of being hit by a car travelling at 10 miles over the 30 limit (see picture) proved to be very successful during the initial stages of it being air on television and through other media.

Of course, as is the case with most marketing phases and strategies, it was not long before other commercial, governmental departments and non-profit organisations, having witnessed the success of these shockvertising campaigns, decided to jump on the bandwagon. Two decades or so on from the birth of this phase, the question that needs to be answered is therefore is….

Has shockvertising passed its sell-by date???

It is difficult to answer this question unequivocally. Research has shown that, from a commercial aspect, shockvertising may well have been relegated to history. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as the shockvertising sector became crowded with imitations, individual corporate campaigns of this nature no longer stood out from the crowd. More importantly perhaps is that by increasing awareness of issues such as domestic violence, these issues have become less of a social taboo subject. Therefore, consumers are less likely now to change purchasing behaviour as a result of a shockvertising campaign.  Indeed, it has recently become apparent that most commercial organisations have now moved from shockvertising to a new phase of humourvertising in their bid to stand out from the crowd.

For governmental and NGO campaigns however, perhaps the sell-by date for shockvertising has not yet been reached. Certainly it is important in this case to continue with messages that are aimed at reducing the incidence of speeding, drink driving and other social problems. However, it is equally important for these organisations to recognise that these messages and images have a limited shelf-life before people become immune to their content.  It shockvertising is to continue to have an impact in the public/NGO sector it is therefore important for marketers in these organisations to continue to find new and innovative ways of presenting this message in a manner that achieves maximum impact.

Note: We have model essay available at our website for students wishing to learn more about this and other aspects of marketing.


  1. Lasn, K (1999), Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, New York: Eagle Books
  2. Gustafson, B and Yessel, J (1994), Are Advertisers Practicing Safe Sex? Marketing News, 28 (6): 4
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