Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 15, 2013

shock advertising is controversial and always will be

ice cream 2
Two ice cream adverts, one showing a pregnant nun and the other two priests about to kiss, were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority shortly after it came out in 2010. The provocative slogans involved are, ‘immaculately conceived’ and ‘we believe in salivation’. ASA said both mocked Roman Catholic beliefs. Federici defied the ban and claimed the use of religious imagery represented its strong feeling towards its product (the company often cites the text “ice cream is our religion”). The firm added it wished to “comment on and question, using satire and gentle humor, the relevance and hypocrisy and the attitudes of church to social issues.

Shock tactics in advertising is something that intentionally startles and offends its audience. The primary objective is to capture audience’s attention with the immediate effect. Shockvertising employs factors such as nudity, violation of norms, and moral offensiveness. It is mostly applied by charities on life taking disease, by public service on social illness. The reason of this application is fairly obvious that the impact of a brand name has been spread out under a relatively small budget in a cluttered media environment. Research shows that shock appeals significantly increase attention, benefits memory and effectively change behaviors (Dahl, Frankenberger & Manchanda, 2003). One hundred and five undergraduates were participated in a between-experiment design and separated into 3 conditions (shock, fear and information). Participants in each condition were left alone in a room presenting the stimulus poster and four decoy posters (scenery, Safewalk, Pepsi, student crossing poster) for 1.5minutes. All three target posters advertised the same theme: “use condom”. Those who were not identified to be suspicious about the experimental purpose were asked to take several tasks: recall the themes of each poster; indicate and reason the attractiveness of posters; recognize the seen posters among a list of 8 posters (5 old and 3 new); recognize the statement of the stimulus posters among a list of 5 statements. The results are consistent in the hypothesis that shock advertisement was the most recalled (96.9%) compared to information or fear conditions (78.1% each). All and only participants in the shock condition were able to recognize the advertisement when cued. Therefore, consumers are more likely to remember shockvertising content over non-shockvertising one.

The social issues Federici tried to emphasize here seems unclear. I mean, if there were a priest and a boy figuring in the poster, it would be much more matching to the title “social issue”. Also, the relation between a pregnant nun and ice cream may not be easy to understand. At least at the first glance, few people are likely to think about the idea of ‘conception’ which is expected to represent the development of Federici ice-cream. Last but least, ethic issue has to be discussed here. According to ASA, 60% of people said they had been offended by shockvertising in the past year. For children, the figure was 30% with sex, violence and frightening material the main reasons. Meanwhile, a number of researchers argue that offensive advertisements could profit a company in the short term, but in the long run it may face the risk of damaging its customer base and brand image (reviewed in Javed & Zeb, 2001).

 Here are some more examples of shock advertisement. 

Dahl, D. W., Frankenberger, K. D., & Manchanda, R. W. (2003). Does it pay to shock? reactions to shocking and nonshocking advertising content among university students. Journal of Advertising Research, Sep, 268- 280.
Javed, M.B., & Zeb, H. (2011). Good shock: what impact shock advertisements are creating on the mind of viewers. Annual Conference on Innovations in Business & Management, London, UK.  


  1. Dear Thomas, I am really curious about your opinion on shock advertisements. Could you please say some words about them? Thanks!

  2. well done on the post. i plan to discuss this.


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