The goal of any ad or marketing campaign is, first and foremost, to grab the attention of the reader. Do that, and odds are that the rest of your content will earn a coveted spot in the thoughts of whoever is taking it in. There is of course the issue of when and where to use shock tactics. As you will see below, they are most often employed to raise awareness of an issue or deter people from partaking in unhealthy or unethical activities. However, every now and again, this approach is used in industries where such things may not be expected (as evidenced by the first example).

Harvey Nichols – Try to contain your excitement

We’ve all been sat around the ideas table when somebody shouts out ‘let’s show them wetting themselves with excitement while they’re wearing the clothes’. The trouble is (or is it troublesome?) that when the marketing minds at Harvey Nichols shouted it, everyone said give that genius a prize.

controversial_ad_campaigns_harvey_nicholsAll of the campaigns in this article walk the fine line between too much and just enough; personally I think this attention-grabbing piece of marketing craftsmanship is on the right side of the line. High fashion is an arena of edginess in itself; you need only look through Vogue’s bizarre yet masterful (and certainly edgy) photo shoots to realise that. Modern-day fashion certainly likes to push the boundaries.

I mean, let’s be honest, when thrown in with the glamorous clothes, beautiful model and make-up, you cannot help but view the urine (hopefully they used an alternative liquid) as a (somewhat) stylish addition. Attention-grabbing, but not vomit-inducing – the perfect balance.

Anti-FGM campaign

The first of a few similar adverts which I will be examining, this anti-female mutilation campaign was created by London ad agency Ogilvy and Mather (@OgilvyUK). As you may have gathered by glancing, even briefly, at the picture below, this campaign was designed to shock people into acknowledging a problem that has ducked under the radar and which affects scores of females every day – genital mutilation.

Girls all over the world – and certainly in Britain too – are subjected to risky and agonising procedures despite the fact they have no medical issues. In a bid to wipe out this disgusting and illegal practice, the powers that be have been left with no choice other than to shock the public into paying attention. This last resort has resulted in the powerful image below, which certainly delivers the desired message, and with a completely necessary level of clout.

Sometimes you have to shout loud if you want people to listen

Sometimes you have to shout loud if you want people to listen

The idea with these campaigns, as even more shockingly highlighted by the anti-smoking ad below, is to have the reader associate the problem being addressed with feelings of disgust and sympathy. Has the above campaign achieved this goal? I would certainly say so. As if the sliced Union Jack material wasn’t enough to make us all stand up and take notice, the horrible, almost barbed wire appearance of the material used to sew up the tear certainly hammers home the very important message.

All in all, it appears as though Ogilvy and Mather were instructed to leave no stone unturned when creating as shocking an image as they could possibly fathom. The issue at hand, as well as the urgency of said issue are both well and truly communicated to the unaware (although not for long) reader. Job well done, and brief well and truly nailed.


NHS anti-smoking campaign

The world of smoking is a bizarre one, filled with contradictions and corporate greed. Cigarettes, despite being hidden from public view in shops and featuring in powerful campaigns such as the one below, are still sold all over the world.

Not even the most shocking ant-smoking image out there

Not even the most shocking ant-smoking image out there

Many organisations spend millions concocting adverts and shocking images to drive people, quite rightly, away from this harmful habit, and no image exemplifies that drive more than this spine-tingling depiction of a cancerous tumour emerging from a cigarette as it is smoked.

Although one of the most notable, the image to the left is just one of numerous anti-smoking pleas. Do a quick Google search and you will be confronted by scores of shocking images, from noose-shaped smoke rings, to tar-covered organs lying inside smoking papers. It seems as though advertising agencies the world over are being tasked with conjuring up ever more disgusting images that will convert even the most devoted of smokers to a fume-free life. Cigarette smoking is certainly not the money spinning world it used to be, particularly given the scores of anti-smoking ads together with new technology in the form of e-cigarettes. However, for some reason, it is not going away, and so it seems certain that the coming years will give rise to even more campaigns such as that above, in an effort to wipe out this cancer-causing pastime.

Sisley – Fashion Junkie

Oh no no no; I mean, how wrong can you get it? What made the creators of this ad think that they would be dealing with anything other than a PR disaster, not to mention countless anti-drug groups bombarding their every communication avenue with angry emails, tweets and phone calls?

controversial_ad_campaigns_sisley_fashion_junkieI mean, if there is one industry where you can’t get away with such an ad, it is the modelling industry. Models have always been linked (sometimes wrongly) with cocaine and its appetite suppressing qualities. Yes, as stated above, fashion can be edgy, but this advert is turning ‘edgy’ into razor sharp.

Cocaine is a very real issue in the modelling industry, and is closely tied to the weight issues that many models face in their bid to become the next famous face. While the image has a somewhat glamorous and glossy appearance, it is this feature which actually sends it over to the wrong side of the very thin line. It essentially glamorises drug taking, and the eye make-up, which many may find attractive, evokes thoughts of how someone may look were they to regularly use drugs. All in all, I think this is just a push too far.


Had enough? The NHS anti-alcohol campaign

Apologies for the dizzy spells which the image below is likely to induce, but I’m sure you’ll agree, it is an extremely effective and shocking spectacle.

controversial_adverts_anti_drugOnce having reassured yourself that you needn’t get your eyes tested, it is easy to see how attention-grabbing this anti-alcohol campaign is. It certainly brings back a few unsavoury memories of my teenage years, and I’m sure it does for many. Shock tactics are certainly warranted when it comes to issues such as these, and said tactics are on full display here. The subject of the image is a young man, which is not surprising given the fact that young males are more likely to find themselves having a little too much to drink on a night out.

As seen from the examples above, images are very powerful things, and there is something worrying about how fast the mind translates this image into a message pertaining to excessive alcohol consumption. For anyone who has ever had that bit too much to drink (and let’s face it, most of us have at one point), this image will hit some nerves, even if those days are long gone.

Fluid Hair catastrophe

The below image is another ‘what were you thinking’ example, and certainly offers up evidence that underneath all of the mild controversy used for promotional purposes, perhaps there is such a thing as bad publicity. The drama (and there has been a lot) surrounding this Fluid Hair salon advert lies with the fact that the woman in the image has a black eye, no doubt given to her by the funny looking bloke in the bad suit.

controversial_ad_campaigns_fluid_hairFollowing this campaign, Fluid Hair found itself apologising to any who were offended. The company also pledged to make a donation to a women’s shelter in an attempt to make amends for its thoughtless glamorisation of domestic violence. However,before doing this, and in a somewhat contradictory fashion, the company’s owner, Sarah Cameron, made an attempt to trivialise the controversy of the ad, stating “Edmonton is the murder capital of Canada, and shouldn’t people be battling gangs and a crappy justice system rather than hair salons in the first place?”

So, according to Sarah, people cannot be criticised or held accountable for glamorising domestic violence if they are living in an area which has a gun problem, a violence problem, or any other serious issue for that matter. What a sound philosophy (I do hope the sarcasm comes through, because there is a lot of it).

Companies and organisations often flirt with the somewhat thin line that separates controversy from downright barbarism, and most of the examples above use a completely necessary and justifiable level of cheek.

Seen anything controversial? If so, please feel free to stick it in the comments.




Share This