The UK Government’s ‘Get Unhooked’ campaign put shockvertising (using deliberately offensive or startling content) to use in its anti-smoking posters and TV adverts. True to nature, the posters certainly shocked the public, with the campaign racking up 774 complaints as well as criticism over the frightening nature of posters from advertising watchdogs. However, generating over 820,000 phone calls to anti-smoking helplines, the campaign clearly got the message across.
But why does shockvertising work? Shockvertising violates social norms and utilises frightening content deliberately. The idea is that disgusting or frightening content catches attention, therefore more resources are devoted to encoding the message. Leshner, Bolls and Thomas’s (2009) experiment showed that messages using fear or disgust provoking content significantly affects the cognitive resources allocated to it. The more scary or disgusting, the more attention is paid. The ‘Get Unhooked’ campaign used disgust as its shock factor, and the level of complaints and subsequent number of phone calls from people looking to quit smoking are evidence of its effectiveness.
Figure 3. Recognition accuracy in the second half of messages for fear and disgust.
As the graph above shows, it only works if you use one shocking factor. Using either disgust or fear, participants correctly recognised more elements of the message. However, using both disgust and fear, people correctly recognised fewer elements of the message. It's suggested that using both actually decreases the resources given to processing the message meaning people remember less of the message. So if you want to shockvertise with success, less is definitely more: shock people or disgust them, don’t do both!
Leshner, G., Bolls, P., & Thomas, E. (2009). Scare ‘Em or Disgust ‘Em: The Effects of Graphic Health Promotion Messages. Health Communication, 24(5), 447-458.