Why We Love Shockvertising

In 1959, Columbia Pictures warned movie-goers that people with weak hearts shouldn’t watch The Tingler, a Vincent Price horror flick about a human parasite that lived on fear. The movie guaranteed more shocks per minute than any previous movie — people love to be shocked.

In the 1990s, fashion brand Benetton raised eyebrows and media attention with a series of print ads incorporating images that ranged from startling, such as a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, to truly shocking, such as a photo of someone in the final stages of AIDS. Still at it, in 2012 Benetton released its “Unhate” campaign that featured manipulated photos of world leaders kissing each other on the lips.

Today, we have “Devil Baby Attack,” a YouTube campaign promoting the movie Devil’s Due, in which kindly New Yorkers investigating an unattended baby carriage are scared silly. ThinkModo, the agency responsible for “Devil Baby Attack,” also did “Carrie,” a staged scenario in which a woman wields supernormal powers in a café, promoting the remake of the eponymous movie. (The agency has also unleashed actors made up as zombies on the streets of New York to get attention for AMC and staged a nude gaming party for Xwerx, among other such exploits.)

“Devil Baby” takes shockvertising into the real world, scaring a few for the entertainment of the many. Those of us watching the YouTube video are removed from the actual terror; we may empathize or we may smirk at others’ distress. You could call it Schadenfreudvertising, but let’s go with the less unwieldy prankvertising. The prank is not the ad; the video of the prank is the ad. It’s so meta.

Scaring people, either directly or by proxy, makes perfect sense for a horror movie like Devil’s Due; it replicates the experience theater-goers hope to have when they watch the actual movie.

“It’s a great way to communicate the movie’s own tone and what they are trying to go for,” says Mauricio Aguayo, director of digital strategy at creative digital agency Click 3X, whose clients include Geico, Lifetime, and Movado. “It’s a short-form way of executing that. We’ll start to see more of this shock advertising, particularly in Vine, where a lot of influencers are currently doing reality bits.”

But shockvertising may make less sense for other brands.

“You have to consider how you represent the brand and what the consumer response will be,” says Tony Mennuto, chief creative officer for Mister Face, a creative and production house creating content for clients including CBS and Schwab. In this case, “We’re talking about a horror movie for a specific age demographic that is open to seeing pranks and consuming video nonstop,” he says. “If you’re trying to sell something like pharmaceuticals or investments and elicit confidence, you’d have to be very careful about a prank video.”

Ken Hamm, executive producer and executive creative director for The Studio at iCrossing, says, “We are basically in the attention-grabbing business for our clients. No attention captured, no message received, no sale made. Crazy stunts are nothing new to advertising and sales. I can imagine cavemen doing the most outrageous things to unload their surplus stone hammers. And, in some sense, there is no bad or good attention. It really depends on whether or not the execution gets the desired attention from the desired audience for the desired result.”

A 2013 study by researchers at the Centre for Business Research at Bangor Business School in England found that in general, people were accepting of shocking ad imagery, but it was seen as more acceptable when done by not-for-profit agencies than by for-profit companies.

However, not all prankvertising scares the bejesus out of the people it pranks. Jerome Jarre, the Vine star with the outsized smile, has garnered 4.3 million followers by making passersby mildly uncomfortable at worst. Trident Gum hired him to produce a spot where he and a friend kiss a woman on her cheeks.

Besides, pranks can backfire. Although there aren’t any known cases of anyone dying of shock from a prankvertisement, in 2003, a prank victim sued Candid Camera for anxiety, distress, and humiliation after a trip through a fake baggage scanner left a fist-sized bruise on his thigh.

“There are lots of legal ramifications. There are lawyers for a reason. My advice is, think about what are you trying to communicate and what’s the best way to communicate that. Then think about how it will position your brand if everything goes wrong,” Mennuto says.

The best tactic may be to leaven the shock with plenty of humor, according to Aguayo. He says, “The general audience today is a bit more desensitized, particularly because the average person is exposed to much more media and content today than in the ’80s and ’90s. If brands want to be impactful, they have to be more clever. Humor works well, which is why ‘Devil Baby’ and ‘Carrie’ work. In the end, they’re actually humor pieces — and that’s always a safe way to go.”

To see the best of shockvertising through the decades, check out the Advertising: Shockvertising pinboard from graphic designer Didi Kasa.

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