Behaviour Change

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Shock advertising – does it really work?




This image was published by Public Health England (PHE) as part of a series of anti-smoking advertisements. It does not set out to sugar-coat the effects of smoking however it presents the health risks of smoking in a raw and graphic manner, comparing it to a process similar to rotting. This is an example of shock advertising which is regarded as an appeal that purposely shocks and offends its audience. Many of us will have come across an advert like the one above yet a key question to consider is how effective such strategies really are. When a smoker sees an image like this, he/she is likely to experience a sentiment of shock and even disgust. However to what extent is the use of shocking images effective in actually changing one’s behaviour and in this case, encouraging one to quit smoking?

This technique is demonstrated in a study by Dahl, Frankenberger and Machanda (2003) who investigated the effectiveness of shock advertising used in HIV/AIDS prevention, in comparison to advertisements involving fear and information. The 'shock' advertisement featured a headline that read “Don’t’ be a F-ing Idiot” and featured a nude couple in an intimate embrace.The 'fear' advertisement showed a driver’s license with the expiration date circled in red and the headline “If you get the AIDS virus now, you and your license could expire at the same time”.The 'information' advertisement showed the AIDS acronym with the words “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome”. All three advertisements featured the tagline “Use a Condom”. There was also a control condition where the “Use a Condom” poster was absent.

Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions (shock, fear, information or control) and subjects in each condition were left alone in a room with the stimulus poster and four decoy posters visible. Following this, subjects were directed to a table showing several items that were said to no longer be wanted. There were a total of eight items, three of which were used to measure the dependent variable. These three items were (1) condom knowledge from Durex (2) AIDS ribbons (3) a business card with the HIV/AIDS hotline from a local medical clinic. Subjects were told that they could keep any items that they wanted. The experimenter left the room and returned two minutes later. Once the subjects left the room, the experimenter counted the items and made a note of which had been picked up. 


The results are depicted in Table 3 which reveals that differences across conditions were statistically significant, with subjects in the shock and fear conditions more likely to pick up HIV/AIDS-related materials than in the information and control conditionsWhat one can take away from this study is that shock advertising was able to motivate subjects to acknowledge the risk of HIV/AIDS acquisition and obtain information regarding safe sex behaviour

Similar positive effects were found for the shock and fear conditions. According to Dahl, Frankenberger and Machanda (2003), these appeals operate in fundamentally different ways. Shock appeals are thought to be effective in producing message-consistent behaviour because they violate norms which surprises subjects and produces additional cognitive processing. Fear appeals however are thought to be effective because they tap into more affective responses from an audience. 

Advertisement agencies as well as public policy makers should consider the use of shocking and fearful content in campaigns because although we might not always want to see the gruesome effects that smoking can have on our bodies, sometimes shock advertisements are just what we need to make us think twice before lighting up our next cigarette.


Dahl, D.W., Frankenberger, K.D., & Machanda, R.V. (2003). Does it pay to shock? Reactions to shocking and nonshocking advertising content among university students. Journal of Advertising Research, 43, 268-280. 

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