Worth the scandal?

Shock tactics are an increasingly common promotional tool – they garner media coverage and get brands noticed. But when does ‘startling’ become ‘offensive and alienating’? wonders Nathalie Kilby

Remember the stir caused by the image of a naked Gail Porter projected onto the House of Commons in 1999? That stunt caught both the public’s and the media’s attention and helped to kickstart a brave new era in advertising. The use of shock tactics and the rise of guerrilla marketing have taken the advertising industry – and consumers – by storm.

There have been occasions in the past when a few brands have taken the plunge with provocative campaigns, but generally these were restricted to above-the-line activity. However, things have moved on from the Porter projection, and in-your-face tactics are no longer the preserve of the lad-mags. While it is true that new brands are often more willing to take risks, even established brands are turning to modern marketing alternatives in an effort to raise awareness – even in the arena of promotions and incentives.

However, as promotions usually aim to appeal to a wide audience, it is often only brands with more discrete target markets that dare to try something different. The arena where the use of shock tactics is employed most regularly is youth-oriented brands, from clothes to alcohol.

Whatever happened to romance?

For instance, marketing agency Black Cat worked on a Valentine’s Day campaign for brewery Greene King, running a “Hot and Horny” promotion in the company’s pubs. Activities included kissing contests and wet T-shirt competitions and it was left to the individual outlet as to “how far things went”. Another sex-led promotion that dared to push boundaries was one that offered a “Valentine’s vasectomy”. Consumers could download a coupon from the Marie Stopes website and offer their loved one a vasectomy as a Valentine’s gift – with the chance to win holiday vouchers thrown in as an incentive.

Black Cat managing director Stephen Callender says the Marie Stopes promotion worked surprisingly well, generating a strong response – and, because of its unusual nature, the promotion gained several column inches in the national press.

In this case the shock tactics proved to be a draw, but Callender believes that not enough brands are willing to take risks in the same way: “While brand managers may be willing to adopt a radical approach in above-the-line campaigns, in the promotions sector it’s a different story. Brand managers are naturally concerned about image: they don’t want to alienate consumers with anything too shocking. They need to be braver and more risqué with promotions.

“Too few brands are willing to push the boundaries. Humour has changed dramatically in the past ten to 15 years; people are more tolerant. Too many brands that have the right environment and the right consumers with whom to work play it too safe. Durex is a classic example.”

One sector where brand owners do like to take risks is the video-gaming market – and games companies aren’t restricting themselves to shocking visuals in television ads. Computer games company Acclaim Entertainment has used some bizarre tactics to get it noticed. When launching the PlayStation2 game Shadowman 2, it hit the headlines by using gravestones to promote the product, receiving criticism on the grounds of bad taste. Not so controversial, but equally as attention-grabbing, was its launch campaign for Turok: Evolution.

Acclaim ran a competition to give gamers something they can’t normally get, as vice-president for international marketing Larry Sparks explains: “Usually, the sort of prize on offer is aspirational, such as a game of basketball with a star player. But we wanted to grab people’s attention with Turok, so we offered them the chance to become the Turok character for a year.” Thousands of entries later, six lucky people became officially known as Turok, their names changed by deed poll courtesy of Acclaim.

“The mechanic caught people’s imagination and generated a lot publicity through press coverage. It was great return for very little investment,” says Sparks.

Scientists playing God again?

However, such tactics are not restricted to marketing youth brands. Andrew Glock of Frank PR was involved in a promotion for New Scientist magazine. The magazine approached agencies to devise a promotional campaign to generate awareness about its relaunch and to communicate the fact that the magazine wasn’t just for men in white coats. PR company Frank PR had the idea of running a competition with a rather revolutionary prize. To enter the “win a second chance at life” competition, readers had to collect four out of five tokens printed in the magazine. The prize? To be cryogenically frozen at death, with the possibility of being brought back to life once (or if) the technology becomes available in the future.

Glock says that the magazine’s editor was initially reluctant to run the promotion on scientific grounds, arguing that the prize could never be fulfilled – and was frivolous. “But,” says Glock, “we convinced him to run with the idea by producing the first edition of New Scientist, which said that colour TV would never be a reality. As we’d proved to him that you can never be certain about future developments, he agreed to run the promotion and really bought into it. The magazine realised that it was getting talked about – and that’s the key to success.”

Glock continues: “The contest generated a huge response. Sales of the relevant issues soared, while subscriptions and sales have remained at a higher level than they were before the promotion. The light-hearted yet shocking element of the campaign gained the magazine several column inches in the national press and proved that science is not just for boffins.”

To underline his point, Glock explains that on the same day as New Scientist launched its promotion, Pepsi announced a £20m sponsorship of a NASA space mission. The cryogenics promotion cost several thousand pounds and generatedas much, if not more interest in the UK – so for Glock, the promotion was a huge success.

Video nasties

Perhaps the most striking use of shock tactics, however, is in informative campaigns. Triangle Group group creative director Nick Presley tells of a road safety promotion that Triangle created for Transport for London (TfL). The campaign ran in just six London cinemas, over three weeks, yet managed to reach an audience that ran into the tens of thousands. It was the use of shock tactics that managed to generate such a response.

Actors were used as plants in the cinema audience. As the lights dimmed for the showing of the ads, a “manager” came in and asked for a “Mrs Smith”. Having called her several times with no response, the manager asks for her again. She responds, but says she wants to see the opening sequence, to which he replies: “I’m afraid it’s urgent Mrs Smith. Your husband has been involved in a bike accident.”

Naturally this causes a stir among the cinema-goers, all the more so as the manager escorts Mrs Smith from the theatre. As they leave the exit, an ad by TfL, demonstrating the dangers and shocking statistics of road deaths involving cyclists, runs on the screen. Once the ad has run, the actors return, apologising to the audience for their use of shock tactics, but justifying it by the fact that the statistics were themselves shocking.

Presley says the campaign provoked a huge response in the press, with critics slamming it as “in bad taste” and insensitive: “There was a very mixed reaction to the promotion. Some people sent letters saying they were disgusted at the insensitivity of the campaign, while others wrote in to praise its hard-hitting nature. In the right context, using shock tactics is no different from the use of satirical humour. Shock tactics are at their weakest when used gratuitously, for the infamy rather than to convey an important message.”

Presley also warns that, when using such tactics as these, it is essential to have some sort of contingency plan in place to counter any negative reaction. “You have to be prepared to take the flak. Not everyone is going to like a promotion that shocks, so have an action plan in place. But do dare to be different. Shocking campaigns are like road accidents: you don’t necessarily want to look, but you just can’t resist.”

Take it easy

Despite the publicity they generate, shock tactics are not advocated by all. Ian Millner, managing director at agency Iris, is not in favour of shocking consumers. “Wild and wacky is all very good, but promotions are all more or less the same: cash, holidays or a third-party tie up. The reason for this is that they are relevant to so many people and they drive sales volumes.

“Essentially, mums and housewives are the people who respond to promotions – they’re the ones who take the time and effort to cut out coupons and send them off. By running a promotion with elements that are sure to shock, brands will alienate the very people they wish to attract. It is just ridiculous to use, for instance, naked women in showers to promote a shower gel – mums and wives will be far from impressed and less likely to participate in the promotion. All the effort and time ploughed into a risqué campaign is cancelled out by the alienation of so many consumers.”

Shocking promotions, though, can create massive short-term impact via national press coverage – and in the long term if they prove legendary – and they don’t have to cost much to execute. Whether you advocate the use of shock tactics or not, they are surely here to stay; after all, campaigns that shock stick in consumers’ minds. Shock is relative: in creative terms, tactics will vary widely according to the target market and the product concerned, but is essential that the promotion delivers the right offer at the right time. And don’t forget to heed Presley: “Be ready to take the flak and have a contingency plan.”

The National Incentive Show

The National Incentive Show runs from September 9 to 11 at the NEC in Birmingham, and features more than 200 companies.

The show was originally launched as SPIN (Sales Promotion Incentive North) at Manchester’s G-MEX centre in 1997. This show ran for three years as a regional event, but demand for a national show led to the move to the NEC three years ago as the National Incentive Show.

The show runs alongside the National Venue Show and the National Direct Marketing Show. The National Venue Show offers information for those who organise events, conferences, corporate hospitality or training. The National Direct Marketing Show showcases direct marketing products and services.

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