Shock & Awe Marketing – Does It Work?

Shock marketing, or “shockvertising,” is not a new phenomenon, but it’s more popular among businesses than ever before. As our culture accepts behavior, imagery, and language that was once considered taboo, companies’ marketing strategies are following suit with increasingly provocative content.

Since the basis of shock marketing tactics is to elicit reactions of surprise, astonishment, anger, and even traumatism, the idea is that these negative emotional responses will create a long-lasting memory in the viewer/reader’s mind. Saying or doing outrageous and appalling things will stand out in someone’s mind more so than vanilla content that is quickly forgotten. If the goal is to make strong impressions, shock marketing has its place—or does it? Specifically, is it right for your business and your brand? Content developers and marketing managers need to consider the question carefully.

Viral Jaw-Dropping Marketing Examples

You can debate whether shock marketing is effective or not, but all we need to do is mention some of the most popular viral material from recent years, and you’ll see the impact it has. With these examples, it’s evident that when viewers are made to feel appalled or even disgusted, they are likely to share, looking for camaraderie in their feeling of “did that just happen?”.

Real-Life Shock Value
Before we look at how businesses benefit financially from negative emotions in their advertising, let’s consider an example of a disturbing news story that tapped into viewer’s emotions and went viral as a result. Remember the footage of Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, dragging a child through his enclosure? The video went viral, and news stations began non-stop coverage. Social media exploded. While this was a real-life event and not a marketing ploy, the point is that the terrifying footage people saw, and the outrage people felt, compelled them to share, discuss and remember the event. And, you still remember it even though it happened more than a year and a half ago–a lifetime in today’s fast-paced world of constant content. Imagine now this same type of shock and awe value in your content marketing, whether it’s through advertising, video on your site, your social media, or your blog posts. Of course, we’re not saying that you should scare your customers or upset them on a whim. The point is that if you could stir up feelings as strong as those felt in the Harambe incident, you’d certainly create a similar buzz around your brand. But, as we discuss below, experimentation is risky.

Shock Marketing that Worked
Outerwear company, Patagonia, ran an ad in the New York Times on Black Friday that said, “Don’t Buy This Jacket” and featured a message about reducing our environmental footprint. Tapping into their customer’s environmental concerns, they made themselves stand out as sharing the same values while saying and doing something radical and unorthodox all at the same time. Patagonia’s sales increased by almost 40% in the two years after the ad ran. This is a prime example of shock advertising done right—as a technique that breaks through the filter by going against expectations.

Shock Marketing that Failed
Some subjects are begging to be satirized or poked fun at, while others will never be humorous and therefore should never be made light of for financial benefit. One prime example is 9/11 and the World Wildlife Federation ad that ran in 2009, showing dozens of planes flying towards the twin towers, comparing the death toll to the Asian tsunami. There was an enormous backlash over this ad, which was seen as distasteful, offensive, and not at all amusing. In this case, the advertiser pushed way too far and alienated their audience completely. While it seems obvious in hindsight that this was a terrible idea, you may find that it takes many staff meetings, departmental memos and careful debate to decide the level of risk your company is comfortable with and how close to the edge you are willing to place your brand.

Tailoring Shock Tactics to Your Brand

If you think this kind of shocking content will be right for your business, it’s important to stay true to your brand’s persona and find your own way to create something outrageous that’s consistent with your company’s message. Never underestimate the intelligence of your customers. When companies create controversy out of nothing or shock for the sake of shock, it can wear thin with clients who see this type of marketing as out of character for your brand or inauthentic. In today’s marketing landscape, the last thing you want to be known for is lacking authenticity.

If your brand favors content with a raw edge and you’re ready to push the envelope, then shock marketing might be the right tactic for you. As long as you can pull it off without going off-brand, then proceed – always keeping your customer in mind. Shock marketing is taking a risk, and the results could be favorable for your brand or disastrous if you push too far or are simply too risqué for your target audience to relate to.

How do you know if shock and awe marketing is right for your brand? Answer these key questions that help you determine if your shock content has some substance behind it:

  • Can your current and potential customers handle it?
  • Is it true to your brand’s message?
  • Does it add value to a larger discussion or is it just crude for the sake of it?
  • Does it inspire your customers/viewers to act/purchase/subscribe?
  • Does it invoke a desire to share with others?

Bottom line – Does it Work?

It’s clear that some brands are cut out for shock marketing and that, when used correctly, it can be very powerful. When it’s done right, it’s very right, but it also has the potential to go very wrong.

Doing your homework on your audience and weighing the pros and cons of shock marketing is the best way to determine if your brand is ready to take the plunge and give this content strategy a try.


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