The ‘90’s saw the emergence of all things ‘shock.’ Shock-rocker, Marilyn Manson, pushed the boundaries of artistic sensibilities just as his inspiration, Alice Cooper, had done in the ‘70’s. Broadcaster, Howard Stern, initiated the ‘shock jock’ phenomenon, blending blunt honesty concerning his personal life and a no-holds-barred confrontational approach to his in-studio guests. Both Manson and Stern achieved high levels of success with this approach despite notable resistance by critics and the public-at-large.

Before Manson and Stern, progressive fashion mogul Luciano Benetton tested the waters of Shockvertising with provocative advertising that caught the attention of the public in new and attention-generating ways.

Although seen by some as controversial in nature, Benetton insisted that the advertising was not intended to shock, but to elevate the consciousness of the public. His success may have drawn equally from both factors.

Creating advertising that confronted hot-button issues of the time, Benetton coupled arresting images with bold social messaging in a way that commanded consumer attention and served to markedly increase public awareness of the brand.

Benetton’s United Colors CampaignIt may be hard to imagine now, but in 1982 it was considered shocking to see two young women wrapped in a blanket, clasping hands while holding a baby – all three of them obviously of different races. Yet, in doing so, Benetton publicly revealed a new tolerance and diffusion of homosexual stereotypes that was revolutionary at that time.

Benetton’s United Colors CampaignOther risk-taking shockvertising from Benetton followed. An amputee with a spoon for a hand, symbolically addressing world hunger. AIDS addressed in a positive light with colorful condoms and sexual imagery. Three actual human hearts, side-by-side, labeled ‘white, black, yellow,’ illustrating the sameness of us all beneath the surface. These were effective campaigns that also pushed boundaries and helped to redefine social acceptance of hitherto taboo subjects.

It did not always work. An early collaboration with Benetton and photographer, Oliviero Toscano pictured two young girls, black and white, together. The idea failed when one girl was pictured angelically and the other was cast in a more demonic light with her hair styled in devil-horn fashion. This perversion of innocence fell flat with the public. Another campaign sought to utilize actual convicts as models, a novel concept, but one that came across as a kind of approbation of violence. Still, despite these setbacks, Benetton continued to raise the bar of controversy, ultimately increasing brand visibility.

Today, shockvertising persists with high-profile corporations employing similar techniques to up the hip-quotient of their products and connect with increasingly diverse and tolerant audiences. Often, the shock-factor is inadvertent, as corporations reflect their CEO’s personal interests, sometimes to the detriment of their overall message. Chick-Fil-A recently offended many when it actively sought to decry gay marriage. While many of their faithful customers embraced Chick-Fil-A’s hard-line stance, other potential customers were distanced by the campaign and the negative reverberations continue to this day.

Forever 21’s religious founder felt strong enough in his convictions to see that Christian scripture was included in each shopping bag. Whatever the repercussions of such an action, the company’s resolute stance serves to brand it as just that–resolute–which may serve its strategic marketing objectives.  Forever 21 Bag with Bible Verse

Major players don’t shy away from shockvertsing when it suits their needs. Google Chrome recently launched their ‘It Gets Better’ campaign on the popular television program, Glee. Openly speaking out against hate and intolerance, Google Chrome positions itself well with a youthful demographic they are courting.

Bill Gates, Microsoft, and Amazon have recently utilized advertising that seek to bridge gaps between sometimes disparate audiences, at once taking a pro-marriage stance while at the same time, framing that message in a way that promotes inclusion and diversity.

Shockvertising isn’t for everyone. Used effectively, it can send a message that elevates a business entity’s profile and positions its brand as forward-thinking. Used ineffectively, shockvertising can backfire and cause long-term brand damage. As volatile as it may be, shockvertising has become a commonly used approach in contemporary advertising.

An opinion piece – Kacy NYC – SIS International Research