The term “shock advertising” or “shockvertising” was created in order to define any advertising campaign which tries to attract the audience’s attention by deliberately violating social values and norms. The most commonly used attention seeking devices in shock advertising are graphic images and blunt language which aim at creating a strong emotion and reaction in the public.
One of the most famous pioneers of shock advertising was Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, whose Benetton’s campaigns in the ’90s hit the advertising industry by storm. Toscani and Benetton used a series of highly controversial images in order take a firm stand on subjects like the infringement of human rights and the protection of the environment. A poster showing a man dying of HIV ended up being “one of the most censored visuals in the history of Benetton ads”, recalls Toscani.
Depending on the specific culture, sometimes simply advertising a particular product considered as taboo (contraceptives or casinos, just to name a few) is enough to create a buzz around the campaign and brand it as controversial.
How does shock advertising work? According to the selective exposure theory formulated by Joseph Klapper (1960), a person tends to remember only information that he / she found to be interesting, thus automatically removing all the rest. Whilst it has been proven that shock advertisements are more easily remembered, it must also been said that, due to selective exposure theory, certain individuals may decide to filter out the offensive or shocking content of an advert.
Whilst shockvertising creates an immediate viral marketing effect, it has to be noted that, the prolonged association of a brand with a controversial message, may end up damaging the brand itself.
Shock advertising has rarely been used in Malta. This may be due to the fact that Malta is a generally conservative country which possesses strict censorship laws.