Ad campaigns designed to shock are on the rise – and while they may make some viewers write angry letters of complaint, shock advertising can achieve some stunning results. Digit looked at two such campaigns – covering print and television – and asks: how do they work?

You’ve all seen the ad. An ordinary, busy shopping street, filmed in B&W, is packed with shoppers. From the left, a car slides in, brakes locked, and in a split second everything is suddenly in slow motion. Then, as open-mouthed pedestrians watch on in horror, the car ploughs into a small boy, bouncing him over the bonnet before his broken body crashes onto the tarmac.

Or how about this one: posters showing a baby in a dark, grimy alley, rubber tourniquet gripped tightly between his teeth as he prepares to shoot up with heroin. Or, the one where three people forget to fasten their seatbelt in a quiet, suburban road, only to crash into a car at the first corner and smash bloodily through the windscreen.

Creating a campaign like this – one that jerks people awake from the shiny-brand stupor we usually consume – requires skill, a unique understanding of how shock advertising can work creatively, and a desire to change people’s behaviour for the better. Digit spoke to the creative teams behind the Department For Transport’s Think Safety! campaign, and Barnardo’s drive to raise the awareness of issues such as child poverty to find out how the campaigns work, and why sometimes negative messages can have positive outcomes.

Think! Road safety

One of the key roles of the Think! road safety campaigns is to drive behavioural change,” says Cilla Snowball, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the agency behind the campaigns. “The use of ‘shock’ tactics is often one of the best ways to achieve this. Confronting drivers with the hard-hitting potential consequences of careless or illegal road use triggers both attitudinal and behavioural change. Some of our most dramatic campaigns have been the most effective.”

One of those dramatic campaigns was Kill Your Speed, which saw a young child run over by a driver just five miles an hour over the limit. Here, Snowball reels off a list of comments from viewers, such as “The slow motion one – it’s powerful. That was a shock”; and “That hits home, the seriousness of it”. Yet planning the Kill Your Speed campaign wasn’t simply a case of setting out to shock.

“First, we establish what the problem is,” she says. “We also look at people’s get-out clauses – the excuses they give for why they exhibit certain types of behaviour. We do a great deal of desk research, meet with experts who understand the issues first-hand, and conduct research. What we’re looking for is a rational fact, which we can then wrap in an emotional context in an advertising execution for maximum impact and effect.

Speed kills

“In the case of the Kill Your Speed campaign, the problem that needed to be addressed was that speeding is not seen as socially unacceptable,” she adds. “In fact, not buying a TV licence and dropping litter are seen as more unacceptable than driving at 40 in a 30mph zone. At the same time, people saw the perpetrators as people like ‘boy racers’, and businessmen in flash cars that drive too fast – not themselves. Our research also revealed that more people die in urban settings and at slower speeds than any other context.”

The resulting brief was based on the insight that driving just a bit faster makes the difference between stopping in time and hitting someone, she says, adding that at 35mph it takes an additional 21 feet to stop compared to 30mph.

The secret, she says, is to think ordinary. “The one fundamental rule we follow in all our advertising is the dramatization of small, everyday risks that lead to big consequences,” she reveals. “We dramatize small risks so we can encourage maximum identification. Using big risks gives people get-out clauses; we shut-down get-out clauses, giving people no excuse not to take in the message.”

The ads use a few other tricks to get the message home. The team try to find news or facts that will be picked up by the media and spread the message, and they try to make the ads as real as possible, ending with a specific call to action, giving people clear advice.

Each ad takes around six months from start to finish to create – although it can take longer if the agency struggles to find a motivating insight for the campaign. But can shock advertising – even based on realistic research and worthy goals – go too far?

“It’s important to understand that using violent and shocking images is not always the most appropriate imagery to use,” she cautions. “We use it when it is relevant and credible, and when we feel that it is the best communication to stimulate change... a large part of our work is to give drivers ‘reminders’. This type of work is not intended to shock: some research has been carried out on the effectiveness of ‘shock’ advertising. It discovered that it can increase effectiveness but, if it goes too far, then it can become less effective.

“The key to good ‘shocking’ advertising is to make sure that the public think the issue is important enough to validate the use of shock, and to make sure that the execution does not go too far. Gratuitous shock will create negative rather than positive reactions.”

And it works due to what Snowball calls normative and behaviour beliefs: “There are two ways to drive change – to challenge and change individual’s behavioural beliefs about what is safe (such as seatbelt wearing), or to change society’s view as to what is acceptable – normative beliefs, such as drink-driving,” she says.

“Hard-hitting advertising designed to change behavioural beliefs works through ‘negative framing’,” she adds. “Humans are pre-programmed with a ‘positivity bias’ – we expect only good things to occur, which makes negative information very salient as a jolt to expectation. The prospect of loss has a far greater impact on decision making than the prospect of an equivalent gain. ‘Positive’ advertising makes us feel comfortable, and is less likely to change our behaviour than negative communication, which is more likely to stimulate us to take action.”

“There are two ways to drive change – to challenge and change individual’s behavioural beliefs about what is safe (such as seatbelt wearing), or to change society’s view as to what is acceptable – normative beliefs, such as drink-driving,” explains Cilla Snowball, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the agency behind the road safety Think! campaigns.

One of the most successful of all the Think! campaigns was one that focused on seatbelt wearing. This campaign saw 18 lives saved in the first year, generated £750,000 worth of free publicity, and seatbelt use rose by 23 per cent during the year of the campaign. A huge 42 per cent of people who saw the ad said it would make them more likely to wear a seatbelt, and it saved the government and hospitals over £73 million. The campaign cost just £1 million.

Silver Spoon - Barnardo's

The UK’s largest children’s charity, Barnardo’s, certainly doesn’t take the light and fluffy approach when it needs to get a message across. Using highly emotive poster campaigns and print advertising, its images have generated coverage that hasn’t always been entirely positive – yet in terms of effective shock value in print, Barnardo’s is winning a war of awareness.

“Our duty, as the UK’s largest children’s charity, is to bring the plight of the most vulnerable children and young people to the attention of those who can do something about it – the public,” says Barnardo’s advertising manager Rachel Knott. And, with a need to generate over £100 million a year to run just the charity’s existing services, Knott is keen that the advertising quickly gets on with the job in hand.

“We know that these adverts are very powerful – but advertising that isn’t noticed does not work,” she says of the latest campaign, dubbed Silver Spoon. “The adverts had to grab the attention of the newspaper reader, and they must address the frequent misconceptions and prejudices that we know the public have surrounding poverty. The real shock is we have the worst child-poverty rate in Europe, with one in three UK children living in poverty. We wanted to raise awareness of child poverty, broaden our preventative work, and increase our lobbying activities. If we invest, we know that our children have a better chance.”

Barnardo’s campaigns seem to have something of guerrilla tactics about them, with a very limited budget, admits Knott. But, they work: “With a small budget, we have successfully created a campaign that was noticed – in the first two days of the campaign, we had more coverage that we achieved in the previous two years of trying to get UK child poverty into the news media,” she says. “We had over 450 items of media coverage spanning newspapers, TV, and radio.”


Knott also offers up no excuses for using shocking images to get across a message: “While it is less credible to sell clothing or beer through unconnected threads that are shocking or violent – our work is shocking, more shocking than the advertising. The advertising is created to reflect the plight of children and their families with whom we’re working. It’s a creative expression of the reality we are working in, day in and day out.”

As with the Think! campaign, the key challenge is honing down the message, says Knott. She says there is usually too much to communicate, and the team need to identify a key message. Once done, the campaign is handed off to Bartle Bogle and Hegarty – the creative agency charged with making the campaigns since 1999 – with the team visiting key projects and working with staff to understand the issues. It’s a process that can take a long time, says Knott, with consultation carried out at key stages, both within Barnardo’s and externally.

Once the initial sketches are created, the team then work with the Advertising Standards Authority to ensure the images and message stay within the guidelines set out by the ASA throughout the development of the creative work. Knott says it takes around nine months to create a campaign, with many people giving their time and expertise for free.

The photography was taken for free by Miles Aldridge, and a few tricks were used to create the final images. First, while real babies were used aged between two and fifteen weeks, they were bathed and had special petroleum jelly dabbed onto their skin to make them look newborn – a nurse was on hand to ensure their welfare. Secondly, the objects were later added in post production, and are metaphors to the future possible outcomes of the babies. The campaign cost a total of £1.2 million – including all media buying.

Knott believes shock tactics can work when you focus on the people involved, rather than just the statistics. “I think the campaigns have worked well because they present individual, desperate stories that you cannot ignore,” she says. Barnardo’s ‘shock’ campaigns serve to bring to the public’s attention the truly shocking facts of child poverty, child abuse and neglect in the UK.

“I think the campaigns have worked well because they present individual, desperate stories that you cannot ignore,” she says. “The case study approach takes a heavy and indigestible issue, and makes it understandable. Also, the creative use of photography presents the message in a way that the majority of the public have not considered. The images are attention grabbing, thought provoking, and unmissable. Everyone has an opinion about our advertising, which is amazing and a huge achievement.”