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Should you use shock tactics?

3 min, 20 sec read
13:00 PM | 30 May 2014
by Jim Compton-hall
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Shock is always being debated in the creative industries. Most mainstream brands tend to stay away from anything that's too risqué but shock has become an important element for many companies from charities to breweries.

Shock is incredibly effective. Shock makes you sit up and take notice. Shock is intriguing, engaging and motivating. It can make a previously obscure product stand out above anything else in the market and make it seem more admirable for its bravery.

But should you use shock within your portfolio, student work, spec work, etc? Probably. That might not be the definitive answer that you were looking for but there's a good reason for that. Shock can certainly be powerful but it's also become the go to tactic for much work, particularly charity pieces. That means you need a stronger justification if you do choose to employ it. 

If your thinking is "I'm designing/advertising/marketing for a charity who deals with shocking things so I will show those things and that will shock people and make them realise how shocking it all is and donate/volunteer/share/etc" then that's really not enough.

If no one else in the world did shocking things then this would probably work, but many of us have become somewhat desensitised to the copious amounts of shocking images and sounds we see in charity communications and news programs. You have to be more than just bloody, and showing a starving child isn't usually enough either. Shocking is more than just something that upsets, it's something that surprises. You have to differentiate yourself from what people expect you to show them, from breaking all rules of the market to pushing the boundaries of what is morally acceptable.

You also need to be careful about just using shock for the sake of shock. If you don't have any other reason for it then it may come off crass, rude or just unnecessarily strange. For example, I could tell you right now to go and %&@! yourself. Not many writers do that, it would be shocking. But it's not going to do me any good. Just because shock can be a powerful tool doesn't mean you should always try and use it. 

Use shock sparingly and take note of these examples:


Yes, we featured BrewDog in our recent article about reaction marketing and now they're coming up again. No doubt we'll include them if we write articles on packaging and copywriting. They truly are great at everything they do and students of the creative industries would do well to study them.

When they have an idea, BrewDog always asks themselves whether or not another beer would ever do it. If the answer is yes, then they ditch it. It's a great way to stand out above the rest of the market and use shock in a way that is actually shocking.

Save the Children

Save the Children created this advert recently which brings civil war to the UK. It works so well because it's not just another advert showing us stuff that's happening far away that we could never understand. Instead it brings the issues right to our front door and shows us what it would be like if we were going through it. Read more about this campaign.


The Italian clothing firm, Benetton, has been built on shock. But their most impactful communications are not the ones which show negative imagery of horrible things happening around the world, but rather the ones that show unity. 

Cancer Research UK

Wait, what's so shocking about this? As mentioned above, shock is more about surprising than merely showing something upsetting. In the last couple of years, Cancer Research UK has become positiveThey're now showing happiness and talking about how we're going to beat cancer rather than trying to scare us into donating. For an advert about deadly diseases, that's pretty shocking. 

There's even more portfolio advice over at our portfolio guide. Check it out if you want to create the perfect book.

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