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Ways To Create a Great Ad #8: Shock

In '100 Ways to Create a Great Ad' Tim Collins offers an overview of a hundred tried-and-tested approaches used by advertising creatives. Tim has selected 10 of these to be featured by D&AD, which means there's 90 more in his book.


D&AD Great Ad Campaigns
Photographer Oliviero Toscani created shocking posters such as this for clothing brand Benetton in the eighties and nineties.


Shocking imagery can be an easy way to make an ad cut through. But it can backfire, leaving a brand or agency looking desperate for attention.

Shock was traditionally the preserve of charity advertising. An ad by CDP for the Bhopal Medical Appeal showed a dead child in a shallow grave and the headline ‘Thousands of our children were not so lucky. They survived.’ This hard-hitting tone was introduced into consumer advertising in the eighties when the fashion brand Benetton hired Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani to oversee their communication. Toscani’s ‘United Colors of Benetton’ campaign featured striking, controversial images that were often unrelated to the product.

Famous examples included a man dying of AIDS, a newborn baby still attached by its umbilical cord and the blood-stained clothes of a soldier who had died in the Bosnian War.

Shock has now become something of a convention in fashion advertising. A 2012 Harvey Nichols campaign showed models wetting themselves with excitement, and drew over 100 complaints from the public.

D&AD Great Ad Campaigns
Baby / In Book / Press Advertising / Public Service and Charities - Campaigns / 2000 / BBH A hard-hitting tone is common in charity advertising.

Shock tactics became much more common with the rise of online advertising and video sharing. In the early days of viral clips, it was assumed that risqué sexual content or slapstick violence would be enough to make consumers forward a clip.

An agency called the Viral Factory set itself up to specialize in such ads, scoring hits with a campaign for Trojan condoms that showed sexual Olympic events such as pelvic power lifting, and a Ford Ka ad that showed a cat getting decapitated by a sunroof.

D&AD Great Ad Campaigns
Trojan Games / Nomination / Interactive & Digital Media / Advertising / 2004 / Media Therapy / Risqué content was novel in the early days of online, but is no longer a formula for guaranteed viral success.

The novelty of such taboo-breaking clips soon wore off, but online still gives brands a chance to push their campaigns into risky areas.

For those looking for advertising art direction courses, there can be none better than Alexandra Taylor’s. 

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