‘Shockvertising’ and its variants: thoughts on their rationale and ‘effectiveness’

Advertising, by definition, is meant to grab people’s attention. If a campaign goes un-noticed, it’s just waste of money. In that context, what has come to be known as ‘shockvertising‘ – the attempt to deliberately shock or even offend people into noticing (and discussing) an ad has come into vogue. It is certainly not a new phenomenon. A common example of such an approach is the ‘United Colors of Benetton’ campaign featuring images which were seen to be controversial. Shot by Oliviero Toscani, these featured images meant to stir a debate. The brand created a campaign in 2011 too pretty much with a similar DNA.

A common variant of this approach is to anchor the communication on a risqué topic, being sensational, using deliberately offensive language, imagery or sexual innuendo. Recently, Adidas put out a tweet showing ‘25 pairs of breasts to illustrate how the support provided by 43 different bra styles ensure that everyone can find the perfect fit, irrespective of breast shape and size‘. While it was a roundabout way of communicating that there’s a right fit for everyone it was (rightly in my opinion) seen as ‘gratuitous‘.

A Twitter user offered a glimpse on the reasons-why such an approach is adopted:

Brands adopt such an approach for a variety of reasons:

Late entrant in a crowded category with big-name players: if a category is defined or dominated by a couple of big players , a late-entrant into that category may see ‘controversial ads’ as a short cut to fame. The hope could be that if awareness can be achieved in this manner in a relatively short time, the brand can eventually become part of the consideration set. The recent activity from a food-delivery service in Bangalore in a market dominated by Swiggy & Zomato may fall in this category.

Why do brand take such a route?

Budget constraints and misplaced notions: A comparatively modest budget may also push (rightly so) some to extract maximum bang for the marketing buck. While that by itself is a logical approach (the founder of Trikaya Advertising in India would often say ‘don’t outspend competition, outwit them‘) it can be achieved with a compelling creative idea that does not necessarily depend on being controversial as an end in itself. Creating work that gets talked about is a laudable objective but it’s preferable to be in a positive context. It’s the difference between being famous and being popular. We’ve all seen how just one single airing of ‘1984’ by Apple has got them positive mileage for years. Ditto with ‘Think Different’ – it’s probably received visibility and accolades highly disproportionate to its spends.

Awards and a jury: We must note here that many such efforts can be clubbed in the ‘made for awards’ category not having commissioned by a client to solve a real business problem or tackle a genuine market opportunity.

A variant of ‘shockvertising’ is to cause a sensation through sexual references in the marketing mix or simply be offensive. In 1994, Wonderbra released its famous ‘Hello Boys’ campaign which came up for a lot of criticism, as it was seen as objectifying women.

I would argue that this approach encouraged even more risqué and blatantly sexist ads for the brand, many of them unthinkable in today’s world. But there was a time when Wonderbra was the creative team’s favourite especially in terms of speculative ads.

The same agency which created the original ‘Hello Boys’ ad for Wonderbra went on to play on clothing brand French Connection UK as fcuk for short. While swear words have become common, a couple of decades the shock value of the brand name got attention. A related point is that thanks to the constant change in what is perceived as acceptable in popular culture (not a positive development always) what is considered controversial has also changed. A few decades ago swear words or explicit scenes were not as common as they are in movies. In advertising, periods were referred to as ‘those days of the month’ until a few years ago in India. Thankfully there is plain speak and no attempt to imbue periods with anything unpleasant nowadays.

In the 1980s, Brooke Shields’ line ‘Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” caused a lot of furore. The commercial was banned by some of the channels but the brand extracted huge publicity from it.

Innuendo is perhaps the easiest way to gain attention. But it can get tiring (as its certainly not a refreshingly new approach) and silly. ‘Where all have done it?‘ asks the voice off-camera to acress Kareena Kapoor. ‘In the parking lot’, inside a lift‘ are some of the responses before revealing that it was yoga she was referring to – all in the context of Puma.




So does it mean that such an approach is not effective? No. The sensible response would be ‘it depends‘- the answer to most questions about marketing. There could be brands for whom being controversial or provocative maybe deliberate strategy – a part of their DNA and may even revel in that limelight. Aside from consumer brands we need to look at the world of celebrities in the entertainment industry where such a strategy is adopted. Ever so often we see an outrageous dress sense or ‘fashion-to-invite-attention’ as a route which ensures visibility.

Some brands could define notoriety, being bold, provocative or raising awareness about uncomfortable or seemingly controversial topics as part of their DNA, if they see relevance to their audience and a business benefit.

Fastrack a lifestyle fashion brand in India has consistently been ahead of its time in anchoring their communication on ‘bold’ topics of the day. Way back in 2013, they created this ad:

In 2014, they had a line which summed up an attitude likely to resonate with their audience: ‘sorry for what?’

Fastback Sorry For What

But such an approach may not pay dividends for all brands. There has to be a match between the brand’s core audience, their mindset and the brand’s product offering and DNA. In Fastrack’s case the products cannot be staid or ‘boring’ when the communication is edgy or bold.

In today’s world where everything and everyone is under the microscope being subjected to comments on social media, and no telling what can become a full-blown controversy brands have to be doubly sure of their stance.

Among the various ‘tricks’ to gain attention, I find sexual innuendo, vulgarity or juvenile humour as an example of lazy advertising – its the easy way out. But let’s face it: there’s a market for everything. In movies too, the humour genre has seen many successful franchises with double entendre or even toilet humour as their calling card. In stand up comedy some audiences cheer for offensive humour while some others prefer relatively ‘clean’ humour. Beyond just advertising, even the sum total of the brand (the imagery, style and product features) can have appeal only to a niche. In India, we have a brand of shirts called Charagh Din which have tremendous loyalty. The print ad for the brand, advertising what could be labelled ‘bold or flashy’ designs were a regular in the back cover of film magazine such as Stardust many years ago. It made business sense as those ‘un-sober’ styles were unlikely to be business wear and may have appeal among an audience who are comfortable in flashy clothes or network in parties where such attire is to be expected.

In my view, anchoring a communication on double meaning ideas or sexual innuendo may deliver buzz – especially in today’s world where things can go viral in no time. But awareness isn’t everything – relevance is. We need to ask:

  • Will the idea resonate with your core audience and the wider audience you seem to appeal to?
  • Is it likely to make the brand a ‘preferred’ one in the wake of product parity (which can be expected to be a given)?
  • What kind of a brand personality is it contributing to?
  • Will it find acceptance among a wide audience or is the brand likely to meet its business objective by appealing to a niche audience who may chuckle or welcome such?

There are successful movie franchises with sexual innuendo or crass humour as their USP. But advertising is not unfettered creativity – it needs to have business purpose and help acquire new customers, get current customers to be loyal. ‘Shockvertising’, especially if anchored on sexual innuendo may deliver short term benefits such as awareness for a certain kind of brand. But on more meaningful parameters such as brand affinity it is not a wise option for a majority of brands.

The maxim ‘any publicity is good publicity‘ is apt for a certain kind of ‘celebrity brand’ – the one who bask in any kind of media attention, even the negative kind. But not all brands have the stomach for such – ask the slew of brands which have faced media backlash for everything from a logo change to an ad campaign which wasn’t liked. Sure, many such negative feedback have not made a material difference to sales. The larger question to be asked if the brand campaign is anchored on associations which help sales in the long run. In my view, it helps to stay in positive territory as constantly focusing on controversial topics is unlikely to make the brand endearing to a larger audience.

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