Shocking Ads! Do They Work?

Rajesh V. Manchanda, University of Manitoba
Darren W. Dahl, University of Manitoba
Kristina D. Frankenberger, Western Oregon University
[ to cite ]:
Rajesh V. Manchanda, Darren W. Dahl, and Kristina D. Frankenberger (2002) ,"Shocking Ads! Do They Work?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 230-231.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 230-231

SHOCKING ADS! DO THEY WORK?

Rajesh V. Manchanda, University of Manitoba

Darren W. Dahl, University of Manitoba

Kristina D. Frankenberger, Western Oregon University

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effectiveness of shocking ad content in the context of a public service message that advocates condom use for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Presumably, shocking messages are used to draw attention to an ad with the expectation that further processing will take place once the ad is noticed. Whether shock appeals actually produce these effects, and produce them better than other message appeals, is the main research question addressed in this paper. We consider shocking advertising content to be unexpected and incongruent with expectations for social norms. We argue that advertising content that breaks social norms violates consumer expectations, which leads to surprise. Surprising stimuli attract attention, encourage additional information processing, and are easily retained in memory. Because ads must be remembered before they can affect behavior, it follows that highly memorable shocking messages are better than other types of messages at initiating message-relevant behaviors (Vakratsas and Ambler 1999). In two experimental studies we specifically test whether this enhanced cognitive processing results from shock appeals and whether it stimulates message relevant behaviors.

Our first study was a between-subjects design employing three different advertising appeals (shock, fear, and informational) that was used to test for effects on advertising attention, recall, and recognition in an HIV/AIDS prevention context. We found that as expected, the shock appeal outperformed the fear and information appeals on attention, recall and recognition. Importantly, our results showed that subjects felt the shock ad violated social norms and this interpretation was identified as the cause of heightened awareness for the shock appeal. The evidence to this point supports our contention that shocking ad content is superior to non-shocking content in its ability to attract attention and facilitate memory. In our second study we tested the effects of shocking content on behavior.

In study 2, we employed the same stimuli and between-subjects experimental design that was used in Study 1, but added a control condition in which the target poster was absent. We found that approximately one-half of the subjects in the shock and fear conditions picked up an AIDS-related item (our key dependent variable), compared to approximately 20% in the information and control conditions. Study 2 results indicate that shock appeals can influence message relevant behavior.

This research tested the effectiveness of a shock appeal against two other commonly used apeals in the context of HIV/AIDS prevention, and in doing so, makes the following contributions. First, study one confirmed what has until now been only an intuition that shock is very good at attracting attention. Second, it was demonstrated that a shock appeal is better at this than other types of appeals (e.g., fear and information). Furthermore, the two studies demonstrate that it is possible for a shock appeal to have positive effects beyond initial attention. The shock appeal investigated in this study was effective at encouraging subjects to remember ad information and to engage in message-relevant behaviors. This paper also makes an important contribution by conceptualizing shock as a combination of norm violation and surprise. This assists in the development of future research on shocking communications by providing a meaningful conceptual definition from which to work.

Our research would suggest that contrary to recent skepticism and concern regarding the negative effects of using shocking advertising content (e.g., Eads 1999), this type of communications strategy can be effective. The publicity that is often generated as a consequence of the norm violating nature of shocking ads need not be considered to be necessarily negative and ineffective. In a public-policy context we have shown that, though a shock ads generates an acknowledgement of norm violation among viewers, it also ensures that subjects remember the message and engage in message-relevant behavior. In a cluttered advertising environment, shocking ad content ensures that the message will be heard.

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