2. 3. 20232. 3. 2023
Capturing the attention of the TV viewer is still one of the goals of marketers around the world. This field is becoming more and more complex as the market is filling up with all kinds of campaigns, so the consumer will appreciate those that are original, innovative and imaginative. But there is an old recipe that is still guaranteed to work - shock therapy. However, ad writers who manage to shock might still not pat themselves on the back after all. Marketing history is full of examples where not only did the desired effect not occur, but the response was strictly negative. Shock marketing is a category that, by its very nature, teeters on the edge. But we know of a number of campaigns that are universally considered good practice.

What we almost all wish we had more of is time. That's why our attention is an invaluable currency - we spend our limited time on a limited number of things. And in today's highly competitive marketing world, if you want to strengthen your brand, the ability to capture your audience's attention is a cornerstone of success. With the shift in marketing savvy and the exponential growth of advertising content, strategies have gradually been honed to claim the viewer's attention with unprecedented ease. One of them is that of inducing shock.

It should be made clear from the outset that a shocking ad does not automatically equal a bad or a distasteful ad. We should take this into consideration while watching the following examples. They include both spots that simply went over the line and had no choice but to disappear from the broadcast, and those that, on the contrary, highlight serious and neglected societal issues. Such advertisements then shock in particular by their content and attract the attention of the audience in order to enter into a debate on an issue. Last but not least, there are those whose aim is simply to shock. Their authors are usually aware of the fate that awaits their work, but they approach it in such a way that even such advertising is good advertising.

But they all have one thing in common. They earned universal attention in their time, and people remember them for better or worse. Controversy, in short, is a concept that has a valid place in the marketing world, which can benefit especially those who can deftly navigate this uncharted jungle. Here are a few examples from which to draw inspiration, or, conversely, which ideas to avoid.

Winston Cigarettes – The Flintstones (1961)

One of the most controversial commercials dates back to the days when tobacco and cigarettes weren't absolutely taboo on TV. Of course, it is clear that such an ad would not pass muster today - if only because it is obviously aimed at a very young audience, who are at risk of developing nicotine addiction. But the United States in the 1960s was a different ecosystem, and so a spot in which Fred Flintstone and Barney Gumble indulge in a proper nicotine break with the Winstons has gone down in TV advertising history. Of course, the popular characters from the Hanna-Barbera animation studio don't forget to praise the popular cigarette brand, while their wives Wilma and Betty are busy cleaning up. This toxic masculinity probably wouldn't exactly be appreciated today either. But the ad didn't cause any outrage in its day. In fact, The Flintstones was the first ever animated series to run in prime time in the US, so it was not a priori considered a show for children, but rather for people of all ages. Different time, different region, different manners. Winstones at that time simply tasted good - which, according to the advertising, is exactly what smokers want from a cigarette.

Video: Winston Cigarettes – The Flintstones (1961)

Barnardo’s – Break the Cycle (2008)

Barnardo's may not be a globally known brand, but in the UK at least it is the brand that has been the most vocal advocate for vulnerable children. It is a charity founded in 1866 by Thomas John Barnardo with the sole aim of preventing child abuse and exploitation. Such awareness-raising often requires breaking established taboos, as Barnardo's vividly demonstrated to TV viewers in 2008. The ad starkly illustrates the ultimate danger, which is the iron cycle of regularity. The life of a girl who begins to slide down the slippery slope receives one negative impulse after another. It starts with abuse from her father through bullying at school and the whole story ends with substance abuse and the inevitable end in prison. There is no easy way out of such a cycle, and this is certainly not an isolated case of a similar grim fate. The launch of the spot was accompanied by considerable controversy. Within a few weeks on air, the UK television market regulator received eight hundred complaints from viewers demanding that the ad be taken off the air. However, the regulator rightly decided that this unique presentation did not deserve a ban - indeed, even in this case, the regulator said the ends justified the means.

Video: Barnardo’s – Break the Cycle (2008)

Antonio Federici – Submit to Temptation (2010)

And now, a commercial that didn't stay on TV screens for long. In 2010, Italian ice cream maker Antonio Federici unveiled a campaign starring sexy nuns, fitness parish priests and unearthly good ice cream. The Catholic Church has probably become accustomed to the fact that such symbolism (mostly without ice cream) is a popular trope in horror films, which is, of course, a genre for connoisseurs and not for lovers of cool desserts from all over the world. The Vatican's response was therefore not long in coming, and after several complaints the ad was taken off the air and banned. However, no one thought that this would be any noticeable blow to the well-known troublemaker Antonio Federici, because the company simply had to take this scenario into account. At the same time, a similar spot was put on the air, which goes one step further by depicting the same nun, but this time pregnant. In short, Christian institutions are determined to defend their dogmas, and the case of Federici Gelato is certainly not the only one that has ever appeared in the advertising world. It's probably too early for sexy nuns covered in ice cream, even after 10pm.

Video: Antonio Federici – Making of Submit to Temptation (2010)

Chipotle – Back to the Start (2011)

In 2011, an American fast food chain that specialises in Mexican cuisine surprised the world with its raw depiction of the cycle of life for pigs on agricultural factory farms. At first glance, the eye-catching animated spot shows seemingly carefree piglets living in a meadow, only to be thrown into a moloch that is not free of harmful veterinary products or appalling living conditions. In the end, the pigs are crushed into raw materials, loaded onto trucks and shipped to consumers. Chipotle has thus to some extent opened up a debate that had been taboo in the fast-food world, and perhaps even helped some mega-corporations to rethink their business models. This is evidenced by the fact that just one day after the campaign was introduced, McDonald's announced that it would put an end to the existing practice of “piggy banks”. It was still a long way from the situation depicted at the end of the spot, where a farmer full of doubts goes “back to his roots” and sustainable farming, but it was at least the first step on a long journey. In this way, Chipotle managed to shock the public and draw attention to a long-standing problem that most of society was happy to turn a blind eye to.

Video: Chipotle – Back to the Start (2011)

HomeAway – Test Baby (2011)

2011 wasn't just full of commercials that shocked viewers in a positive way. A typical example is a spot for online marketplace HomeAway, an American company that provides similar services to the better-known Airbnb. The latter cut a national embarrassment on live TV during the commercial break of the Super Bowl, when this highly controversial “gem” premiered. The premise itself isn't that bad. The spot features an agent of the secret government agency Ministry of Detourism who takes the viewer through a testing lab filled with hotel rooms where the "bad" vacation takes place. This is a critique of established travel companies, with which everyone has had more than one negative experience, and the ad works more or less fine. But in one of these cubicles we see a family who are in the middle of holiday chaos. Without going into too much detail - the whole scene ends with a toddler being catapulted against a glass wall and splattered on it, accompanied by the tagline "test baby". You can probably imagine the criticism this drew from Super Bowl viewers. Many parents complained that the spot scared their children so much that they didn't even want to watch the second half of the game. All of this led to HomeAway eventually apologizing for the TV ad and not allowing it on the screen. But of course, the Internet has an infinite memory.

Video: HomeAway – Test Baby (2011)

Hyundai – Pipe Job (2013)

Drive your way. The slogan of Hyundai cars, which is also known in the Czech Republic by practically every car enthusiast. However, the creators of the 2013 ad probably decided to give this message a rather unusual content. It should be noted that in the same year, the carmaker also launched its new ix35 model, which promised zero carbon dioxide emissions, fully substituted by water vapour. This will be important later. The spot itself then plays with a very sensitive subject. It follows a man who decides to commit suicide in his garage by inhaling fumes from an internal combustion engine. And you guessed right - the man doesn't die as a result, because the steam simply doesn't do that service. Hyundai, of course, got its comeuppance for this creative misstep. One unnamed woman even published a suicide note to her father, who left the world in the same way. The ad therefore soon disappeared from screens and the company dropped it. But it is a case that illustrates in a frightening way the lengths to which brands can sometimes go in their quest for originality.

Video: Hyndai – Pipe Job (2013)

Alzheimer’s Research UK – Santa Forgot (2016)

Society tends to forget the people who forget. While Alzheimer's disease is widely known, few people can imagine what patients with the diagnosis experience until it affects them personally or someone in their close circle of friends or family. There are also not many medical research-oriented television campaigns, especially those that can shock and make you think with their accessible execution. But scientists from Alzheimer's Research UK have come up with an effective way to do this - in contrast to the classic narrative of Christmas ads. The story of Freya, a young girl who one day learns from her dad that Santa Claus has dementia, captures exactly what all patients with this difficult diagnosis need; understanding, support and a good dose of trust. But not everyone is as lucky as Santa in this picturesque spot. But patients can rest assured that leading neurologists from around the world are working hard every day to research possible ways to slow the progression of this degenerative disease. That's the dose of hope that saved Christmas in the tale told by British actor and comedian Stephen Fry, and in an ideal world, could save lives too.

Video: Alzheimer’s Research UK – Santa Forgot (2016)

Dove – Before & After (2017)

It's hard to believe that one of the scariest flops in marketing history is one of a world-renowned cosmetics brand like Dove. It's a quickly cancelled campaign from 2017 in which black-skinned women become pure white after using the company's products. After it was unveiled, the world quickly began searching for an answer to the question of whether the entire marketing team at Dove had gone insane, or if it had just been taken over by a local cell of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The company is usually close to topics such as a positive relationship with one's own body or social inclusion, which made it all the more difficult to understand where such an idea even came from. Fortunately, Dove realized her mistake very early on, ended the campaign early and publicly apologized. However, this is far from the only marketing controversy that is tied to the cosmetics industry. This case, however, reminds us suspiciously of the advertisement for Árijec washing powder in the programme Česká soda. Even that would probably not pass today, but as far as Mr Čtvrtníček, Mr Šteindler and Mr Vávra were concerned, it was at least immediately clear to everyone that this was a mere satire.

Video: Dove – Dove Outcry CNN Coverage (2017)

Nike – Just Do It (2018)

"Just Do It" is a legendary slogan that has been associated with Nike streetwear and athletic footwear basically since forever. So in 2018, the company wanted to celebrate its 30th birthday and brought in a very specific partner to do so. And that was Colin Kaepernick, the legendary quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who was, however, considered a toxic figure by a large part of the public in the US at the time. This was due to his outburst against the system in 2016, when he refused to stand during the American anthem and instead knelt to draw attention to the racial inequality and discrimination that is a constant problem in American society. However, Nike has worked closely with Kaepernick since 2011, and even this controversial moment has not deterred its leadership. Moreover, the controversial athlete fit into the narrative of the campaign, which was based on famous personalities from the sports world who managed to overcome various problems. Whether personal or social. Of course, the spot quickly became a viral hit on social media and didn't leave most viewers cold. Some considered Nike's move unpatriotic and downright contradictory to the principles of American patriotism, while others applauded the effort to draw attention to topics that are known but not talked about. The economic results offer an interesting perspective. The day after the spot ran, the company's market share dropped dramatically, but not long after, over the Labor Day weekend, the company's sales rose 31%. It's just confirmation that unpopular moves sometimes pay off.

Video: Nike – Just Do It (2017)

Gillette – The Best a Man Can Get (2019)

When a brand tries to shock with advertising, it always expects to split public opinion in some way. Global razor manufacturer Gillette managed to do just that during the 2019 Super Bowl, when the company stepped hard into the gender equality debate. And the audience was split - half immediately hated the spot, while the other half praised it for daring to finally "speak out" about what the society wasn’t addressing enough. In this particular case, of course, it was mainly men who were offended, because the company's presentation is actually a short film about a phenomenon for which the term toxic masculinity has been coined. It is basically a series of scenes that depict the same thing - men and boys physically or mentally dehumanising women and girls. Voiceover then asks Americans, is this really the best the average man can do? The timing of the spot, of course, fits into the biggest surge of support for the MeToo initiative. The creators of the spot then balance the negative portrayal of men with scenes of them being kind to women. That being said, the debate around this ad has been quite fierce. Positive discrimination (not only because of gender but also because of race) has often been discussed in relation to it. Does the ad draw attention to a serious problem in an effective way? That is for each individual viewer to decide.

Video: Gillette – The Best a Man Can Get (2019)

Which ad caught your attention the most? And is "shocking subject matter" a possible way to capture viewers' attention nowadays? Let each of us make up our own minds.
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