Decoding Shock Advertising Is it Right for Your Brand
Advertising & Display

What Is Shock Advertising and Should You Use It?


It’s most likely that at some point in your life, you have come across an advertisement that has made you angry…or even shocked because it goes against moral or ethical standards.  “How could they possibly advertise such a thing?” “Is it even legal for them to advertise in this way?”

Unfortunately, this marketing strategy has become so widespread in the past few years that it now has its name: Shock advertising.  

By no means at Sortlist are we endorsing this kind of marketing strategy, but we thought it would be interesting to share this dark form of marketing some companies feel the need to turn to with our audience.

We promote honest advertising to create a sincere and ethical bond with our customers.

What is Shock Advertising?

To understand shock advertising, you need to understand shock.

“shock is chiefly a reaction to something unexpected” – Negative Emotion Typology

It’s also contagious. For example, when a juror witnesses other jurors who are shocked about a crime, they undergo a severity shift, which results in a combined severe verdict.

One person’s shock can cause another like-minded person to feel the same way, which is how shock advertisingworks. You create a chain reaction of violating norms by upsetting a group of people who feel the same way about a particular topic or subject.

Quite a few marketing strategies are available, but we will focus on shock advertising for this article.

Shock Advertising is:

a marketing strategy used to deliberately startle or offend the public by violating standard procedures and the public’s ideas and social values

The internet has played a major role in this type of strategy, as it allows consumers to interact with brands more readily than before. Especially on social media, the audience can comment on what businesses say.

Shock marketing takes the concept of the customer always being right and turns it on its head.

How Does The Shock Advertising Technique Work?

The shock advertising technique usually targets a specific target market—for example, social justice warriors, feminists, the LGBTQ+ community, or like-minded people.

After identifying the target market, an advertisement is created and shared to generate shock conversations.

Many social issues are currently used in shock advertising, such as toxic masculinity or police brutality.

Shock advertising will get customers’ attention by attacking something they feel passionate about or value based on their social media beliefs.

Is Shock Advertising Ethical?

Every business decision has flaws and positives; shock advertising is no different.

It’s not only degrading your reputation but also very unethical. Not only will you alienate your mainstream clients, but you also risk losing your customer base completely.

Shock advertising will affect not only your reputation or the business but other people involved as well. It can single-handedly ruin people’s lives. 

The other downside is that it has a short-term effectShock advertising helps to get your brand talked about, getting the public revved up in the wrong way, to get great results. However, the results are not always good; it can get out of control when people get angry. It’s not only unethical, but it’s also not the best route to take when trying to get the best outcomes for your company.

There are always more creative marketing solutions to use rather than risking it with shock advertising.

When Does Shock Advertising Have the Most Effect/Affect?

Shock advertising has had the most effect in the past when branding a person or group of people. The public then reacts by boycotting or supporting the company whenever something wrong is said or done.

If you use shock advertising, your advertisements will become a hot topic (not usually in a good way) on every social media platform. Even journalists will post about it, which will get the word out, affecting your sales or stock ratings.

Shock Advertising Funnels

There are many ways one can use shock advertising, but the below steps outline the elemental journey:

1. Publication – A brand or company runs a marketing campaign using the shock advertising technique.

2. Exposure – The advertisement is run, and the consumers are exposed to an ad that shocks them and renders them speechless or enraged. The tactic is incorrect and goes against their moral and ethical beliefs, which could be accidental or even deliberate.  To ensure their advertising strategy doesn’t accidentally become a form of shock advertising, many companies seek the help of advertising agencies in the United States or other countries to help their campaigns.

3. Interaction – At this point, the consumer interacts with the shocking content by sharing it with family and friends and commenting on the post by pointing out their anger and disgust. Even though it is bad publicity, the brand or company is still getting attention.

4. Promotion – PR companies and news sites pick up the hype around the ad. Large corporations and well-known brands will do this coverage for free.

5. End game – The attention around this can go two ways; the brand can either get new customers and followers who might find the ad funny, agree with the message, or appreciate the change in tactics.

Alternatively, it can go wrong to the point where the brand loses credibility. If it’s a major company or brand, they will take the hits and handle the repercussions, and it will soon blow over, but not so much for small brands.

Examples of Shock Advertising

In the UK, they have an organization called the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), which oversees British advertising industry regulations. The ASA is responsible for ensuring the sector content is appropriate and fair.

Below are examples of the top five marketing failures (shock advertising) in recent years, some done unknowingly and some done deliberately.

Paddy Power and the St. George Polar Bears International

This is a betting site known for its controversial advertisements. For example, in 2018, they ran a campaign called ‘England Till I Dye,’ where they released a video where someone spray-painted an image on the back of a polar bear with a red St. George’s cross.

England til I dye

They infuriated many people and created many controversies, not exactly the outcome they were looking for… or is it?

Budweiser – Bud Light Slogan Mishap

In April 2015, Budweiser had a big mishap with a slogan used to promote their Bud Light beer. The words ‘The perfect beer for removing the word NO from your vocabulary for the night.’ This Bud Light ad makes it seem as though they are in favor of date raping. It went viral on Twitter with the hashtag #UpForWhatever.

bud light

Bloomingdale Spike, Your Best Friend

No one knows whether it was a joke or a severe ad gone wrong. People may ask why Bloomingdale ran these ads indicating that they endorse date raping?

It beats me and anyone who believes in their brand. All social media platforms ran their Christmas ads with the caption, “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.”

bloomingdale's ad outrage marketing

This ad shocked a lot of consumers; people even compared the brand to Bill Cosby. This is probably not the outcome they expected. Bloomingdale surely regretted this campaign by saying,  ”In a reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our current catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale sincerely apologizes for this error in judgment.”

Pumas House of Hustle

In April 2018, Puma launched their new line by hosting an event (House of Hustle), where they sent burner phones as invitations. Unfortunately, the venue was also dodgy, with dirty mattresses and blacked-out windows. One would feel like you just walked into a drug house. However, according to a magazine report, the reasoning behind the campaign was “nothing says ‘buy some trainers’ like addiction, misery, and squalor.”

pumas house of hustle outrage marketing

Should You Use Shock Advertising?

The answer is not definitive, as the results can go either way for your brand. It can be a success or a failure, and it’s impossible to predict how the public will sway. However, if you do your homework and complete the necessary business and marketing analysis, you will get the answer you seek.

Ensure you get to the core reason for the ad campaign and the type of marketing technique you wish to use. It will be in your brand’s best interest to be prepared for all kinds of outcomes.


We all live in an age where competition is everything, and brands will do whatever it takes to get the recognition they deserve.

Considering all the information about shock advertising, it is always best to ensure you do your homework and get all the statistics and data requirements for your final decision.

Shock advertising can benefit your brand, but it will probably be its downfall.


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