Shock of Life

Our world changed. Again. Each time, it’s getting worse. Each time, it’s getting more out of control. Each time, it pushes us to say ‘we should not change, this is what they want, we should not change’. But do you really think it’s possible? I’m afraid we have to change; we partly change because our behaviors and ways of communicating are definitely tainted with the environment we live in. Then, after the horrors we lived in many parts of the world, and the horrors that I fear we will witness in the nearest future, what will we think about some of the ways we did advertise sometimes.

Few companies produced advertisements that created explicit social and political messages. We can even say that a lot of brands now are playing with shocking content to stand out of the crowd and ‘create the buzz’. We live in an era where we believe that provoking the viewers would bring consideration and visibility. Pioneering this move was the Italian clothing company Benetton whose “shock advertising” style was soon adopted by other companies in multiple categories (maybe lifestyle and luxury were jumping there more evidently). While some praised these companies for addressing important issues, others condemned them for exploiting societal topics.

Critics have blamed advertising for manipulating people, creating and instilling false needs and values, promoting materialism or perpetuating stereotypes. Although there is some validity in these criticisms and majority of advertisements do portray a “fantasy” world structured around product consumption. Benetton, mentioned before, decided to spread and show, instead of product pictures, images of AIDS, wars, environmental disasters, racism, and recently, convicts on death row. Benetton ads quickly entered into the public discourse, provoking heated discussions about what the role and content of advertising should be. The company was both condemned for its appropriation of serious issues to sell goods and praised for highlighting urgent social concerns through its advertising. Beyond inciting public debate, Benetton ads also spurred legal action, which resulted in banning of several of its campaigns in various countries. Other companies, including Diesel, FCUK, the Body Shop (and many others, with their own style), adopted similar shock tactics in their advertising, in a fashion that was referred to the “Benetton-Toscani effect”. Opinions on such advertisements are polarized. Some blame emotional manipulation and commercialization of serious social issues; others praise them for highlighting the very same issues. Nonetheless, shock advertisements generate academic and popular debate.



Shock advertising refers to a genre that aims to stand out from the competition. As consumers become more and more advertising savvy, it becomes more challenging to craft advertisements that attract attention. Some advertisers seek to cut through the clutter by deliberately creating controversial advertisements that distress the audience. Shock can be delivered through provocative images of human suffering and misery as well as through images that are erotic or pornographic, disgusting, vulgar, and morally insulting or mocking. Research shows that shock appeals attract attention and improve brand recall. However, these advertisements also trigger criticism. Critics accuse these companies of commercializing and trivializing political and social issues to promote sales of their products. Many industry people even condemn such communication for being tasteless and exploitative, and find these companies guilty of breaching the standards of advertising and morality to generate more sales. I argue that controversy associated with these advertisements derive from their bold attempt to challenge the conventions of advertising, and, thereby, introduce ambiguity into the advertising discourse. A closer examination indicates that shock advertisements defy the established norms and principles of advertising through three sets of paradoxes: representational, ideological, and interpretive.

Advertising, given its commercial goal of creating a positive image for the brand, is guided by a representational strategy of showing the pleasurable and happy experiences associated with the product. Advertisements portray the glamorous and fantastic images of people, situations and places, and promise happiness, beauty, fun, self-esteem, control, and the like as a result of product use. If a problem is presented, it is only to be resolved at the end through the promised magical transformative power of the advertised product. In many campaigns of Benetton, however, iconic images of human suffering and distress replace images of fantasy and happiness. This violates the structural norms of advertising but also problematizes the cultural codes that distinguish genres in terms of whether they represent “reality” or “unreality”. When confronted with documentary or news photography, the audience expects to see a transparent reflection, a mirror image of an external reality. The originality of this advertising style lies in “placing images normally confined to the news into a sphere of discourse where they are normally excluded”. The disjuncture between the subject matter and the representational logic of advertising discourse creates a shock delivered to the advertising form itself.

Benetton advertisements, whose structuring principle is shock, sensationalism and voyeurism, are attempts to rewrite the relationship among aesthetics, commerce and politics. Benetton engages in a “representational politics” that claim to reflect the “truth” through its register on realism. However, because these images are decontextualized and then recontextualized in advertising, they are stripped away from their historical and ideological conditions of production, and thus, are depoliticized. The aestheticization of politics turns the images of suffering into fascinating spectacles which “simply register rather than challenge the dominant social relations reproduced in the photographs”. Similarly, Falk suggests that these ads take spectacular representation to the extreme, and evidence both “the separation of the advert from the product” and the increasingly permeable boundaries between different genres. While Benetton attempts to expose social reality through sensationalism, other brands may chose to blend irony into the spectacle. That was the case of Diesel for different campaigns.



We can definitely confirm that advertising is influenced by the postmodern ethos, and more and more advertisements are incorporating features of postmodern aesthetics in their attempts to communicate with a postmodern consumer segment. We understand the blurring of the distinction between reality and unreality, the mixing of different genres, the invocation of spectacular aesthetics and the use of irony. It is deliberate a meaningful association between the product and the ad imagery gives place to a deliberate mismatch of signifiers and signified that resist closure and aesthetic comfort. Ordinarily, the language of advertising is characterized by indifference toward social problems and apolitical stance. Advertising is seen as presenting a personal world of consumption stripped away from social and political problems. Studies, often drawing on a Marxist perspective, link the development of advertising to the development of modern consumer society, and argue that advertising represents “a form of domination that perpetuates capitalist hegemony” and operates as “a privileged non-democratic and privatized form of discourse”, advertising is part of what he calls “commodity aesthetics” which shapes the values, perceptions, and consumption behavior of individuals to integrate them into capitalist lifestyles.

But what is going to happen now? What about playing with shocking advertising nowadays? What about the brands that are using those images to portray themselves? Are they ready to take a new responsibility in our society in fear? I have no answer; it’s difficult to put perspective to our industry nowadays. I just wanted to question.


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