Montana Meth Project: ads that ‘hit you right between the eyes’

The Montana Meth Project was a number of advertisements that were run in the Montana area in an effort to curb the increasing usage of the drug meth among the younger population. The advertisement campaign aims to highlight the social consequences of using the drug. Dennis Taylor, the Project’s executive director said the ads are supposed to ‘hit you right between the eyes’. He says he hopes a change in attitude about the drug will lead to changes in behaviour.

Bleeding Billboard in New Zealand

In New Zealand in an attempt to highlight issues around safe driving, particularly during rain resulted in this extreme advertisement campaign. After a particularly wet season road deaths had risen considerably. The advertisement here bleeds when it rains.

Shock Advertisements: A Discursive Topic in Society

Firstly, when discussing the potential for shock advertisement to become a discursive topic in society, the continued reference to anti drink driving awareness campaigns shows that in Ireland fear appeal advertisements are typically associated with shock advertisements. The consensus among the respondents was that they recognised that shock advertisements have been confined to fear appeals in Ireland.

‘I suppose social causes and anti drink driving campaigns. They would be the most high profile ones especially in Ireland in recent years once they started that trend they came out with a stream of shock and awe ads.’

in many ways Ireland is still a ‘traditionally’ run society where religion is still a cornerstone of the country’s societal norms and values. This they feel still plays a major influence on societal discussion of taboo subject matters that shock advertisement can often cover. Furthermore this also still plays a role in how sexually themed shock advertisements are perceived by the majority.

‘Here in Ireland pubs still close on a Good Friday and it’s the 21st Century and we are still rooted in religion. Even sex is still a bit of a taboo subject here and you can’t talk about it and you can’t be talking about that!’

This introduces the cultural and demographic issues that play a part in what sector will employ shock tactics and how it will be perceived. In addition to this, the respondents comments suggest that consumer empowerment and greater levels of cynicism means that if a shock advertisement carried out by a product/service company is taken up wrong, a severe backlash coming in the form of public outcry can ensue.

Respondent E offers an evolution of thought on this issue: ‘I think that word of mouth is definitely vital and is spreads the campaigns quick but you know some of these ads are going out purposefully; I mean that is the edge. They know a certain amount of complaints are going to come in and complaints and make a topic and therefore spreads it quicker.’

Thus a public’s reaction to an advertisement is a reflection of the social and cultural fabric of that environment. Thus cultural dimensions do form a vital part of managing the advertising communications model, particularly for shock advertisements.

Shock Tactics: Advertising Creativity and Originality

The prevalence and exhaustive use of advertising in all media platforms, has meant that the issue of clutter is one that needs to be overcome far more urgently. One respondent noted that there is a lack of uniqueness and a greater amount of replication of advertisements;

‘Yea generally I find a lot of advertising gets very repetitive and I would find it goes in cycles where you might see one very unique ad and over the space of a year you would probably see three or four ads that are very similar to it.’

Advertising is by its very nature dynamic and is in a constant state of change. We are in the ‘era of sharing’ and advertising is a far more accessible form of entertainment, further extenuating the need for originality and creativity. The respondents’ viewpoints also point to a relatively new consumer habit that has emerged; people will only pass on advertisements via social networks and email that they think will be deemed as being perceived as creative, different and original by the recipient. People will use a creative advertisement as an expression of themselves by sending it to their friends or an evolution of technological sorts of ‘the extended self.’ Technological advancements can be seen as a contributor in the demise of traditional advertising, suggesting that there may be a greater urgency among advertisers to come up with more creative and original advertisements. In discussing the effectiveness of shock advertisements, it is apparent that originality in advertisements is a fundamental reason for an advertisement to be deemed effective. It is seen as a socially accepted method for advertisers to employ in executing creativity and originality.

‘Generation Kill’: An Insatiable Demand for Violence

Evan Wright in his anthropological-like study in Iraq of male American Marines, also of the same demographic of this study, coined a term for this testosterone fuelled demographic; ‘generation kill’. In coining this term for the young aggressive males, Wright pays homage to the young male’s insatiable demand for violence born out of a childhood diet of violent video games and a desensitization to violence. With the resurgence in popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) among the 18 to 34 male demographic in the latest decade and its violent nature, it becomes apparent that this generation 18 to 34 male that Wright studied just may be infatuated with the glorification of violence as entertainment in advertising and the wider media.

Further research suggests that the media, and advertisers, use this to their advantage in selling the violent nature of the sport of MMA and other sports with violent tendencies. Violence and aggression is intrinsic to many of the combat sports that exist today, and it is this fact particularly among the young male audience that increases their enjoyment in viewing such sports and seduction to its advertisement.

Cultural Sensitivity & De-Sensitisation of the Masses

The issue of cultural sensitivity and the de-sensitisation of the Irish population to media is central to the understanding of shock advertising and advertising in general. The manner in which the respondents constructed meaning and reasoned why shock advertisements sometimes work and don’t work pointed to a number of issues relating de-sensitisation of the masses thanks in part due to advertising:

  • Whether a shock advertisement is deemed sociable acceptable and appropriate by the mass public is determined by whether the advertisement is shown pre or post watershed when shown on television.
  • A shock advertisement must be seen to be considerate of the wider public audience and not only the intended target market.
  • The increasing immunity levels of the mass public audience mean shock advertising will become less of an issue; the population is becoming increasingly desensitised to advertising.

In delineating a relationship between the three points outlined above, the respondents’ perception is that for shock advertisements to become socially acceptable, it must be shown post-watershed if it is of an extreme graphic nature. But for a shock advertisement to actually serve its purpose and shock the intended target market, it must be of an appropriately shocking nature that it will break through the clutter in advertising and also break through the ‘immunity barrier’ in the population. The term ‘immunity barrier’; a term coined by this author, is what shock advertisements are creatively executed on, as ‘immunity barriers’ will vary depending on the cultural and societal setting.

The ‘Tightrope’ That Shock Advertisements Must Walk

The image below highlights the in-built paradox with the functions of shock advertising. The advertisement must be suitably set to shock whilst also having to be considerate of the mass population and not offend any particular segment. The complexity of this issue with shock advertising is further complicated by having to overcome the ‘immunity barrier’ of the population.

A theme prevalent in discussion so far is the ‘tightrope’ that shock advertising must walk. This is continually being redefined with progression and evolution of societal and cultural standards and norms. Through the proliferation of shock advertisements, it is almost causing the bar, or ‘tightrope’, to be lowered in society.


Norms, values and expectations all contribute to shape the dynamic nature of this ‘tightrope’ in society. This further reinforces the notion that shock advertisements need to be continuously refined in order to walk this delicate ‘tightrope’ and not overstep societal boundaries in the extreme.

Shocking Themes: Used To Generate Controversy

Shock advertising is primarily used in commercial advertisements with the intent of causing controversy, which is why heated debates on its use arises. All in all, demonstrating how shock advertising is by its very nature a polarising topic of debate and one rooted in controversy. This is why causing offense and stimulating extreme emotions maps so well on the rebellious younger demographic.

Respondent B in an interview ponders on the duality of shock advertising; shock and controversy go hand in hand;

“Oh definitely we have become harder to shock and in a way that’s going to lead to advertisers really trying to push the boat out. But it’s not so much a shock anymore but it’s still elements of stuff trying to shock but is more so causing controversy. And it’s that thing of trying to understand which is better shock or controversy?… I think if you bring in an advertisement that causes arguments and heated debates that turn up in the paper and the news. And then anytime another controversial ad comes then your ad comes up.”

‘Fail’ Generation & Taboo Entertainment

  • A relatively new consumer trait that has emerged amongst the ‘Internet Generation’ is that the young demographic are drawn towards the weird and wonderful in entertainment and advertising. This idea of the ‘fail generation’ is a reference to a popular website amongst young people where people upload videos and images to the website (see of ‘fails’ that have occurred in banal circumstances in everyday life. In the respondents’ interpretations of some shock advertisements, their statements show that they would pass a shock advertisement on to friends if it proved to be extreme and to break boundaries supports this notion.
  • This idea of taboo entertainment is what can ultimately prove a draw for a shock advertisement amongst the 18 to 34 male demographic. They enjoy watching something different and possibly grotesque and which expresses an extreme activity and represents a base level of entertainment for this demographic.

Fear Appeals in Shock Ads: A Vehicle to Discuss Social Issues

  • Shock advertising and fear appeals retain the potential to act as a means of discussing social issues that may be considered taboo subject matters or those which may be ignored by the wider public. Some drink driving awareness advertisements have been seen to be extreme but this has also meant that the social issue has become an everpresent topic of debate in the public domain. This in turn aids in the taboo subject matters being discussed more freely and social issues and anxieties faced up to and dealt with.

In New Zealand, after a particularly wet season road deaths had risen considerably. The advertisement here bleeds when it rains. When it rains, red liquid pours out of the billboard and out of seemingly cuts on the child’s face.