Last updated on 7th November 2023
Marketers sometimes use shock tactics in their video ads to grab people’s attention. While shocking ads can be risky, they can also be super effective if done right.
Shocking ads work because they surprise us and get us talking. When an ad shows something weird,gross, scary or just plain unexpected, it’s hard to ignore. Like it or not – our brains are wired to pay extra attention to shocking things.
Now, marketers can’t just shock for shock’s sake. The shock needs to connect to the product or message. Shocking ads help brands stick in people’s minds. Even if the ad annoys some folks, it gets the brand name out there.
Of course, there’s a fine line between an impactful shock and bad taste. Go too far, and an ad can damage a brand’s image. But a bit of shock value used thoughtfully can make an ad shareable and memorable.
Let’s check out some of the most shocking video ads ever made. You’ll see some risky moves that paid off big, boosting brand awareness through outrage and buzz. We’ll also discuss what makes these ads work instead of just offend. There’s method behind the madness!
1. Most Shocking Second a Day Video by Save the Children
I can’t sum up this video better than its call to action at the end:
This video ad, that shows what life would be like for a little girl called Lily if London was Syria, is possibly the most thought-provoking video I have ever seen.
At the time it was released, ‘second a day’ videos were really popular on YouTube, and the director, Martin Stirling, used this to his advantage when creating the ad. According to Stirling, Save the Children wanted to “make something which would resonate on a global stage which felt contemporary and relevant to modern audiences.”
Seeing the terrible events that child refugees go through every day presented via a medium that is relatable to our society is what really worked for this shocking video ad.
The ad gained viral success, clocking up 21 million views in the first 5 days. The success was also recognised through many awards and the video became the first non-profit video ad to be named the most popular advertisement of the month on YouTube.
The video was so successful that the charity created a follow-up video:
As well as being a video marketing feat, the advertisements also achieved what they were designed to do. Save the Children saw a 25% uplift in regular gifts towards the Syrian refugee crisis, and the charity also saw a huge peak in engagement across all of its social media channels.
2. Dumb Ways to Die by Metro Trains
This adorable, hilarious video packs a punch with its shocking message at the end. This video was created by Metro Trains as a way to connect with the youth in Melbourne, Australia who exhibited absent-minded and foolish behaviour around trains.
Metro Trains worked hard to make the ad seem like it, well…wasn’t an ad. And that hard work paid off as Dumb Ways to Die is now the most shared public service announcement in history!
On top of that, the video has been viewed over 100 million times, the song reached the Top 10 on the iTunes chart, and, most importantly, the ad resulted in a 21% reduction in railway accidents and deaths.
3. Break the Cycle by Barnado’s
This shocking video ad contains scenes of child abuse, crime, and drug-use. It’s because of this that it received over 800 complaints to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority). The hard-hitting ad escaped a ban because the ASA concluded that the aim of the ad justified the use of such strong imagery.
This powerful ad, which was the first venture into video marketing for Barnardo’s, is possibly the most difficult one on the list to watch, but it worked because it raised some much needed awareness for a great charity.
4. Heimkommen by Edeka
This Christmas video ad by German Supermarket Edeka split audiences across the globe. The video, which depicts an old man faking his death just so that his family will visit on Christmas, made some people sob:
Some people laugh:
While others were left outraged:
Despite the conflicting reactions, this ad did what all great ads set out to do: it got people talking. As a result, the video has been viewed over 55 million times on YouTube, surpassing the always anticipated John Lewis and Sainsbury’s Christmas ads.
5. The Girl Effect: The Clock is Ticking
This video by the Nike Foundation presents, in a simple and easy to digest way, the reality for many young girls living in poverty. The video mixes hard-hitting facts with disturbing images, like the following…
…to get their powerful message across. The video has won many awards, such as TED’s Top Ten Ads Worth Spreading. However, it has also sparked controversy for only focusing on improving the wellbeing of girls in poverty, not boys. When asked about this, CEO Maria Eitel had this to say:
“We definitely want to see men and boys understanding that the girl effect is about everyone. The World Bank is about to put out a study that talks about the opportunity cost of not investing in a girl. So it turns out if girls in Nigeria could finish secondary school they’d add 40 billion dollars to their national economy over their lifetimes. And if young women in Paraguay had jobless rates similar to those of young men, annual GDP growth rates would be 3.3 percentage points higher.
Numbers like these pop up all over the world and they tell us when girls are excluded, we all lose. If we’re interested in global economic growth then all of the male business and government leaders need to get behind the girl effect, and so do all of the fathers, brothers and male teachers in all of the world’s communities.”
6. Act on CO2
So far on this list we’ve seen ads depicting child abuse, fake deaths and even porn, but you may be surprised to know that the ad that came closest to becoming banned was one about climate change!
The video uses a fairytale-style narrative to explain the dangers of climate change for future generations. The use of a worried looking child in the video provoked a strong reaction in viewers who complained to the ASA. But the video was one of the only ads not to be banned from the government’s “Act on CO2” initiative.
Ultimately, this ad brought more publicity to the Act on CO2 initiative and provoked thought in viewers by ending on the question: Is there a happy ending?
This video by Always starts off light-hearted enough. An off-camera director asks actors to perform actions “Like a Girl” and then the same is asked of young girls. It’s then that the shock-factor appears: girls grow up with the idea that “Like a girl” is an insult, and they usually discover this when they are going through puberty – in other words, when they are feeling their most insecure.
This video ad very cleverly changes the perception of the phrase “Like a girl” for the actors in the ad and also the viewers at the same time. This thought-provoking idea created amazing results for Always with the phrase #LikeAGirl being tweeted 177,000 times in the first three months and purchase intent increasing by 50%!
This shows that you don’t need to be a charity to create a video with a shocking message. With the right focus, a shocking ad campaign can work wonders for any brand’s marketing strategy.
8. Chipotle: Back to the Start
This video will strike a cord with anyone who has an interest in animal welfare. The video ad uses visceral imagery of animals being pumped full of medicine and then squished into squares of meat before being transported into trucks, to hold a mirror up to the world of farming.
The shocking imagery mixed with the haunting soundtrack is enough to give you chills and, because of this, the viral video ignited an international conversation and even resulted in McDonald’s announcing plans to phase out inhumane pig crates just one day after the video aired.
9. Santa Forgot from Alzheimer’s UK
Similar to the Most Shocking Second a Day video, this animated ad by Alzheimer’s UK takes an issue that needs more exposure and applies it to a popular part of our culture (in this case, Christmas) to make it relevant and get people talking.
The video, told with a fairytale-type voiceover, definitely pulls at the heartstrings. The sensitive nature of the video caused the ASA to receive some complaints from shocked parents that considered the ad damaging for children. However, with the advert only being broadcast after 7:30 p.m. (at a time when young children are unlikely to be watching), the ASA found that the video was not breaking the UK’s advertising code.
The two minute video moved me enough to donate £5 the very second it finished, and then I was compelled to share the video on my social media pages straight after that. Apparently I wasn’t alone, as the campaign raised £55,000 overall!
The great thing about this list of shocking videos is that they are each shocking in their own way. Some make you cry, some make you laugh, some make you simply stop and think, and others provoke action.
So, why did we show you these videos?
To take you on an emotional rollercoaster? No. To show you that videos CAN make a difference. YOUR video can make a difference. You just need a stellar storyline, beautiful iconography, and a little bit of a shock factor.To talk more about video and how it can work for your brand, get in touch with one of our friendly account managers today!