What are shock tactics and why are they used? 

Shock tactics are persuasive communication strategies designed to grab and hold people's attention by using sudden, unexpected, or emotionally charged content. These tactics are often employed in advertising, activism, and various forms of media to provoke strong reactions, create memorable impressions, and drive behavioural change. Shock tactics typically involve elements like extreme visuals, graphic content, provocative language, or messages that challenge societal norms. 


The behavioural science behind shock tactics 

Unsurprisingly, the fundamental aim of shock tactics is to shock: they are designed to jolt us out of the 'pre-contemplation' stage of behaviour change, into performing an action and they do so in a number of ways. Firstly, they activate the startle reflex, an evolutionary mechanism that is designed to ensure our survival. When faced with sudden, unexpected stimuli, our brains trigger a cascade of physiological and cognitive responses, including heightened attention. Shock tactics leverage this reflex to ensure that their message is impossible to ignore. 

Shock tactics also take advantage of the fact that we are emotional creatures, and aim to provoke strong emotional reactions, which have the potential to directly influence our subsequent behaviour. For example, shock tactics employed to deter someone from engaging in a particular behaviour will seek to evoke feelings of fear or discomfort, and activate cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance, a theory proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957, suggests that individuals experience discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes. Shock tactics can create cognitive dissonance by presenting information that contradicts an individual's existing beliefs or expectations. This dissonance motivates individuals to resolve the conflict, often by engaging with the message and reconsidering their stance.


Are they effective? 

So, we know what they are, but do shock tactics actually work? Well, it's not quite as simple as a yes or no answer. Shock tactics can have a number of positive impacts upon individual’s cognitions, emotions, and ultimately behaviour, but in many cases it can be short-lived. Let's unpack that in a bit more depth... 


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They are memorable

When you're hit with something totally unexpected and outrageous, it's like your brain's personal highlight reel. It's the stuff you won't stop talking about at parties. Whether it's a wild ad campaign, a crazy art installation, or a mind-blowing protest, shock tactics shake you out of your everyday routine and make you sit up and pay attention. They're the rebel yelling in a world of polite whispers, and that's why they stick with you, making sure you won't be forgetting them anytime soon.

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They are engaging

Shock tactics have an innate power to captivate and engage our attention like a magnet. By deliberately breaking the boundaries of what's considered ordinary or acceptable, they force us to pause and confront the unexpected. This element of surprise, often tinged with controversy or provocation, creates an irresistible draw, akin to a suspenseful plot twist in a gripping novel. Whether it's a bold marketing campaign, a daring piece of art, or a thought-provoking act of protest, shock tactics demand our active involvement, compelling us to question, reflect, and form opinions. Their ability to spark discussion and debate ensures that they remain at the forefront of our thoughts, reminding us that engagement often emerges from the unexpected and the audacious. 

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They can prompt short term behaviour change

The abrupt and attention-grabbing nature of shock tactics (e.g., a shocking message or event) can lead to temporary shifts in behaviour. Whether it's a startling public service announcement, a jolting health scare, or a provocative ad campaign, the initial shock can prompt individuals to reconsider their choices or actions momentarily. This temporary alteration in behaviour may be driven by fear, guilt, or simply the impulse to align with a new, eye-opening perspective. However, it's important to note that the impact of shock tactics tends to reduce over time, and for long-lasting behaviour change, sustained efforts, education, and wider social support are typically necessary. 

Can they backfire?

As we've already explored, shock tactics, when used recklessly or excessively, can suffer from the law of diminishing returns due to overexposure. What initially grabs our attention and provokes a reaction may become less effective when used too frequently or predictably. Over time, shock can lose its hard-hitting impact, and the audience can become desensitised or even fatigued by the constant barrage of content. This overexposure can dilute the intended impact, making it challenging to sustain long-term engagement or behaviour change. To maintain the power of shock tactics, it's crucial to use them strategically and judiciously, saving them for moments when they can truly break through the noise and provoke a genuine response rather than becoming just another element of background noise. For example, when graphic images of cancerous tumours and black lungs were introduced on packets of cigarettes, they were an unexpected, hard-hitting and shocking reminder of the impacts of smoking, but some people have become so desensitised that seeing these sorts of images actually provokes psychological reactance as they think ‘I know smoking is bad, but I’ll do what I want, thanks!’. 

Another issue with some shock tactics is the degree to which they are ethical, and responsibly communicating information. A prime example of using shock tactics to deceive or mislead for personal or organisational gain is the use of 'clickbait', like a YouTube influencer who posts a video titled 'it's all over'. This ominous but also dramatic title draws people in and likely makes them click to watch the video, as they want to find out whether something tragic has happened or perhaps the influencer is leaving YouTube, when in reality they've just cancelled their Netflix subscription or something mundane like that. Whilst being misled in this way is unlikely to cause little more distress than some frustration and potentially reactance (e.g., you think ‘I’m not watching their videos again’), other shock tactics that push the limits, can cause its audiences emotional harm. 

This ethical concern highlights the need for increased responsibility to protect individuals from undue distress. Content creators and businesses must be mindful of the potential harm that overexposure to shock tactics can cause and should consider the ethical implications of their choices, ensuring that their intentions align with the broader principles of empathy, respect, and social responsibility. Some already do this well, by providing disclaimers and ‘trigger warnings’ at the start of their content so that their audiences are not completely blindsided by the content that follows. 


Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, shock tactics are a bit of a double-edged sword of being on one hand engaging, but potentially unethical on another. When harnessed effectively and deployed thoughtfully, they have the capacity to jolt people out of complacency, spark discussions, and drive short-term behaviour change. Yet, their impact can diminish with overexposure, and their ethical use must always be a key consideration. To truly measure their effectiveness, we must recognise that the true power of shock tactics lies not just in their ability to shock but in their capacity to provoke meaningful, lasting change. Striking the right balance between impact and responsibility is the key to ensuring that shock tactics continue to be a valuable and thought-provoking tool in communication and behaviour change.