Impact Ideas


In-yer-face marketing – you can’t shock me!

Written by Marliese Andexer 12 / 01 / 2013

Shock tactics have been used in marketing and the arts for many years. Advertisers regularly employ explicit imagery to grab attention and last year Stephen Mangan was forced to remove his prosthetic penis after audiences at The Royal Court were less than impressed by the sight.

As a result of public reactions such as these, many are turning away from shocks and leaning towards the use of nudge tactics. But does being shocked still have an effect and does it hold a valid place within the industry?

Stephen Mangan in 'Birthday' at The Royal Court Theatre

Stephen Mangan in ‘Birthday’ at The Royal Court Theatre

The first few months of a new year are home to many social, cultural and economic certainties. One of these commonalities, along with bulging credit card bills and the office party aftermath, is the Department of Health’s increase in activity to promote healthy living post-Christmas.  

NHS Stop smoking campaign

NHS Stop smoking campaign

However, this year the department has fallen foul of many television viewers due to the new anti-smoking campaign. The advert, which premiered in late December and shows a cancerous lump growing on a cigarette, has already led to numerous complaints being lodged at the Advertising Standards Authority due to the graphic content.

This has in turn compelled many to accuse the Coalition Government, who hinted toward a more ‘nudging’ tactic upon election in 2010, of reverting to ‘shock’ tactics in order to scaremonger and  elicit rapid, emotionally charged and counterproductive responses from its audience.

Of course, this is not the first time shock tactics have been used as a call to action. The use of shocking images to impel the public can be traced back to the Victorian era when Thomas Barnardo showed choreographed before-and-after photographs of children who had apparently been through his system of care and rehabilitation. One image showed an impoverished, malnourished, dirty child and the other a clean, industrious and healthy child actively working towards what was regarded as a socially positive outcome.

Before and After ad by Barnado's

Before and After ad by Barnado’s

Retrospectively these images seem tame and even twee, but to the unversed, Dickensian, highbrow classes of 19th century London the pictures highlighted the plight of street children in a way many found uncomfortable.

A hundred years later this tone of communication was revitalised by the Barnardo’s foundation with their ventures into video marketing. Their first television advert, ‘Break the Cycle’, released in 2008, showed graphic and disconcerting images of the continuous and repeating chain of grief surrounding an abused and wayward child. Again, over a century since the charity’s initial exploration into the use of shock tactics, Barnardo’s had resorted to emotionally potent material to increase awareness.

The NSPCC’s ‘Full Stop’ campaign also employed shock tactics and, as with the Department of Health’s current advert, came under fire from the public and the press due to the shocking images and messages used to create memorably visceral and disturbing adverts. However the campaign, which utilised video and print marketing strategies, was an unprecedented success with final figures showing the charity had surpassed its targets by 70%. It is examples such as this that reveal why shock tactics are continually utilised by this sector and why many others follow suit.

Critics of shock tactics as a means of communication claim it alienates audiences by aggressively eliminating any realm of choice.

“If you just frighten people and don’t have corresponding activities to help people quit, then there’s a danger you create the fear and anxiety but not the change in behavior . . . If you make me feel bad about something but don’t give me something I can do about it, then in an unconscious way I almost end up disliking you and your message.” Rory Sutherland, president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (2009 – 2011)

In their critically revered work ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’ Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein suggest that “by offering choices one is able to gradually affect and indirectly influence an audiences’ views and, ultimately, their own choices.”  The mass conformity of the audience, despite the offer of choice, is due to the message feeling personal and the western ideal of ‘keeping up with the Jones’.

In their book, Thaler and Sunstein describe a case study in America where high energy consumers were told how much they were using in relation to their neighbors, ultimately resulting in the perpetrators reducing their expenditure. This technique is being rolled out across the western world and Sunstein and Thaler are now employed by the American and British governments respectively.

In spite of this, the success of nudge tactics is confined by the immediate cultural surroundings. The aforementioned case study from America is not being transplanted in France as behavioral and brain scientist Olivier Oullier, an adviser to the French government, states that “The French have a tendency not to comply as easily with perceived social norms the way Anglo-Saxons would . . . Telling someone in France that their neighbor is using less electricity or saving more water is not sufficient”.

So, in light of the above, can we conclude whether shock and/or nudge tactics have a place in the surroundings of art and culture? Can an audience be shocked into action when the products on offer are not physically beneficial to either the first or a third party? And, without wanting to sound too much like Mary Whitehouse, with society’s views on what is deemed taboo and shocking relaxing at an incalculable rate, do shock tactics have a place in the world of marketing at all?

Last year a theatre production at The Royal Court entitled ‘Birthday’ had a scene where Stephen Mangan, the lead actor, opened his trousers to reveal a prosthetic erect penis. The reaction of the preview audiences was described as a “cold and uncomfortable silence”. Although hardly akin to the Old Price riots of 1809, the negative reaction was still enough to change the production days before its official opening and Mangan’s penis was not seen again.

Does this example display that theatre goers and art lovers are a little more sensitive and is the cultural environment they inhabit one not willing to accept shock tactics?

From your experience, do shock tactics have a place within arts marketing or is nudging the way?

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