Shock advertising: 30 ads that would give Australia’s ad watchdog a coronary

Is shock an underused weapon in Australian advertising, asks Robin Hicks

Today, Sydney agency The Cabana Boys used an image of a mouth sewn together to shock people with the idea that problem gamblers lie to conceal their habit. Is it the most disturbing image ever? No. Will it get banned by the Advertising Standards Bureau? No. But it did make me wonder why shock is not used more often in Australia – and not just by charities and government bodies. (WARNING: NSFW)

I spotted a poster ad from Germany yesterday that would cause the good folk at the Advertising Standards Bureau to spit in their green tea. I had a look for others that might have a similar effect, then had a look for Australian examples of advertising designed to shock.

Some of this lot are just plain disturbing. Others are possibly scam. But hey, with Cannes around the corner and awards on the mind, why let boring old accountability get in the way of the gratuitous pursuit of infamy? Besides, like it or not, shock works.

In March, the Ad Standards Bureau (wrongly, in my view) banned an anti-animal testing ad for ‘unjustified violence‘. I wonder what they’d make of this ad for Humans for animals. The copywriting (“Don’t treat animals the way you don’t want to be treated”) is almost as horrible as the image.

Or what they’d make of this one for German animal rights group Deutscher Tierschutz Bund who use the same technique (role reversal) to make their feelings known about pig castration.

This was banned by the high court in Germany, would it be acceptable to community standards in Australia?

Australia has the toughest laws on tobacco marketing in the world, and some powerful anti-smoking lobbies like the Cancer Council. But would they go so far as this French lobby group in arguing that smoking is as bad as child abuse?

Would a child abuse charity, like Australia’s Heal For Life, do something like this?

A domestic abuse charity in New Zealand took a sinister approach to Valentine’s Day, with creepy messages written inside greetings cards. But the intention was not to shock.  Would this have been more effective?

Charities can get away with shock. And ad agencies can get away with making shocking ads for charities, since they are usually doing it for free (and the chance to win an award). BBH London won plenty of awards for this ad for children’s charity Barnado’s.

AIDS is routinely tackled with shock advertising, which has often done well at awards shows.

Does humour have the same impact?

In this ad for organ donation group France ADOT, shock and dark humour are a curious mix.

In this bizarre ad for Unicef Germany, the copy reads: “In Africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school.”

And what about regular brands. Is shock taboo? Could, say, a brand of chocolate in Australia get away with this? Not very Joyville, is it?

Or a car brand do this?

The media in Australia are not particularly well trusted, if you believe the research. But I’m not sure they should be taking marketing lessons from Thailand in how to persuade their readers that they, as the tagline in this ad reads, ‘See through the truth’.

The decline of the men’s magazines sector in Australia is hastening, as the latest set of ABC results showed. Perhaps they need to sharpen their targeting strategy, Belgian-style.

In June last year, outdoor ad company AdShel responded to a torrent of complaints to the ASB from the Australian Christian Lobby by taking down posters for an ad for gay safe sex called Rip and Roll. I’m not sure if ASB’s complaints website could cope if this ad for Italian ice cream brand Antonio Federici went up on billboards in Brisbane.

If agency creative departments were staffed entirely by teenage boys and their work did not need client approval, there would be more ads like this around. Although like most luxury fashion brands, Tom Ford does his ads inhouse.

The same goes for Deutsch.

No one does shock better than Benetton. The controversial Italian fashion brand has had a few ads banned over the years, defending itself with the claim that it is bringing awareness to an important issue, not just trying to sell more jumpers. This one attempts to ‘unhate’ Pope Benedict XVI and a top Egyptian imam with an image of them pashing.

This is one of the most powerful shock ads of all time, and helped wake up the world to AIDS at the beginning of the nineties.

Other fashion brands, like Italy’s Nolita, have copied the Benetton strategy. This was put up before the Paris and Milan fashion shows, to attack the industry’s obsession with skinniness.

But get shock wrong and the result is just a bit silly, although this ad would hang nicely in the toilets at the Ivy.

The credibility of this culture jam by PETA, a protest against the live boiling of chicks at KFC, is ruined by the possibility that passers-by might not read the message on the side of the bath filled with two semi-naked women.

The most powerful ads you’ll find in Singapore (that aren’t scam) are from the government, which tries to scare the crap out of people to make them well behaved. This anti-smoking poster by the Singapore government is not its best effort, which appears to suggest smoking turns people into zombies. (The marketing director of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board told me that they have tried using gentler methods, even humour, but nothing is as effective as shock – at least for raising awareness). The ad is consistent in tone with cigarette packets in Singapore, which carry hideous images of gangrenous feet and faces eaten with oral cancer.

When is shock justified? Melbourne’s rhino-on-a-skateboard campaign for Yarra Trams, which warns pedestrians to be wary of trams, is a great campaign that has won plenty of awards. But for me, it’s more cute than cautionary. Something tells me that this idea from Brazil would be more effective.

I’m fairly open minded about what’s going round at a party, but after seeing this ad I would make me pass on the methamphetamine.

If forced to think of the one ad that has never left me, it’s this one, which I first saw on a huge billboard on a bridge near Brixton Station, South London.

Australia does shock too, although the approach is generally more conservative and is restricted to government and charity advertisers.

Grey Melbourne’s ads for the Transport Accident Commission have over the years used shock, although last year’s multi-award winning ‘The ripple effect’ is more haunting than shocking, if there is a difference. The neck-break scene in its latest ad for motor bike safety is closer to the bone.

This campaign for WorkSafe Victoria is no-nonsense shock.

M&C Saatchi went for a similarly honest approach for the Australian Red Cross.

This ad for Pedestrian Council of Australia won a Gold Press Lion at Cannes in 2009.

But whether it’s due to conservatism on the part of clients, a lack of balls on the part of the agency to push the envelope, or the strictness of the rules on advertising, shock is an underused weapon in Australia.

"Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore."

I would not argue that Kevin Spacey’s character in Se7en was right to murder seven people in horrible ways to make a statement about a society that doesn’t care. But maybe he had a point when he said: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

Robin Hicks


  1. Macsmutterings
    14 May 12
    11:01 am

  2. Some fantastic examples there, something to think about on a Monday morning

  3. Janelle
    14 May 12
    11:02 am

  4. Wow… Seriously disturbing but extremely effective. I am a little bit shellshocked by some of these, which is exactly what good advertising should do.

  5. Michael Blumberg
    14 May 12
    12:41 pm

  6. So sex, kids and body mutilation is the go? Got it. Not.

  7. chris gray
    14 May 12
    2:52 pm

  8. Clever, shocking, in-your-face. Not sure I would want my kids to view many of these ads, but as the visionary George Lois – one of the original ‘Mad Men” – once famously said: “advertising should be like poison gas. It should grip you by the throat, it should bowl you over.” On that basis, George would no doubt have approved of most of these communication platforms!

  9. Sally Webster - Lecturer Advertising & Marketing Communications
    14 May 12
    4:16 pm

  10. The Gambling ‘if you have to lie, we have to talk’ campaign has some similarities to the US Declare Yourself campaign featuring a number of celebrities with their mouths stitched. This campaign aimed to encourage young people to have a voice and vote in the 2008 Presidential elections. There’s some stunning and powerful images, particularly Christina Aguilera and Jessica Alba – Google them to check them out.
    The ‘No Anorexia – No-l-ita’ ad you include was particularly shocking because it was of a real model, Isabelle Caro…and after the campaign she died of anorexia…making it even more powerful:

  11. bob is a rabbit
    15 May 12
    4:08 pm

  12. I want to work in-house at Tom Ford.

  13. James
    16 May 12
    9:17 am

  14. Would someone be able to explain to me what “scam” is that keeps getting referred to in relation to research in this article? Is it as simple as not doing the research or is something more…?

  15. Cathie
    16 May 12
    10:33 am

  16. @James – a scam ad is one created purely to try and win awards, so work that isn’t actually published, approved by the client or used -but this isn’t disclosed by the agency.
    Sometimes even work created for a client whose account belongs to another agency.

  17. Bob
    17 May 12
    5:52 pm

  18. As a client we had done a campaign in radio and tele and press online – all the usual and the creative agency wanted to enter a longer version of the radio ad for Canne.

    But it needed to be a real ad and to be real it had to run. They asked us if we could include it in our media schedule which i nixed as its not our job to pay for ads for the agency to win awards, but being a very large advertiser we asked the media agency to work something out with a radio station for the creative agency so they could run the ad once to qualify for Canne.

    A radio station came to the party and agreed to run it at 1:30am in the morning once and voila, a ‘genuine’ non-scam entry for Canne

  19. linc
    23 May 12
    9:51 am

  20. I would argue that good advertising should resort to entertaining people into what the message is. The moment a brand starts putting prices into their ads, I know that they’re in a hurting industry. I remember the days when very few car ads would tote the price of the vehicle, and now they almost all do.

    Health insurance is traditionally about “feeling better (now)”, pardon the pub, yet in the last 2 years, all I’ve seen is price-driven advertising, and found it a breath of fresh air seeing Medibank and Bupa go for product oriented advertising,, again. It’s been too long.

    It’s something that Coca-Cola and Cadbury have never lowered themselves to, going for price jaunts. Yes, holidays and the like are in there too, but not “get a coke for $x” which, to my mind, hasn’t happened since the 1920s in the height of the great depression and despite the mixed financial crises around the world right now, it’s only the frontline retailers who are actually fighting on price about the Cadbury or Coca-Cola prices.