In advertising, it’s a common misconception that the best ads are happy-go-lucky, full of fun, and generally inoffensive.

However, our data shows that uncomfortable or distressing ads, aiming to shock or upset the viewer, are some of the most effective at triggering behavior change.

The below study from Nielsen shows how different themes in advertising are received around the world – but those that might produce a negative impact for viewers aren’t included. The positive effects of negative themes in ads are difficult to measure – and tricky to visualize.

Nielsen study

This Nielsen study shows how different themes in advertising are received around the world

So, what do people feel comfortable experiencing in the ads they watch?

Love and excitement are far and away the two biggest emotional drivers in this space. In most of the top 100 ads we tested from 2017 for this study, love and excitement were among the most frequently cited emotional responses.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise (which is also very popular). The public is more inclined to buy into brands that make them smile, laugh, and feel happy.

Consumers also want to feel what they’re watching hasn’t been experienced before – the holy grail of holy grails: a unique ad. These ads are the most likely to go viral (in a good way).

A brilliant example of a unique adventure in advertising is M&M’s 2017 Christmas advert. A combination of whimsy and warm; it was the most ‘unique’ ad of our 100 tested and the most likely to go viral. It’s most associated emotions? Happiness and love.

Visceral ads can’t be ignored

Despite the above ad’s positive reception, it’d be just as easy to skip or scroll as it would be to share and like.

There’s a reason why negatively received ads spread across the web like wildfire – we love a bit of drama. We enjoy watching others stumble. And to an extent, we all enjoy the opportunity to impose our beliefs on others. So there’s an undeniable bonus in making an ad that’s deliberately provocative: you can’t be ignored.

For example, this controversial, in-your-face Skittles ‘Newlyweds’ ad was understandably banned, but it still gained notoriety online for taking things past the boundary of decency!

Burger King’s 2017 ad for their Whopper burger is both unique and provocative – but a risk nonetheless. The ad consists of a social experiment: hidden cameras record customers’ reactions (or lack thereof) as a child gets bullied in the restaurant. Next, those same customers receive a burger that’s been ‘bullied’ (i.e. punched to a pulp). Do they kick up a bigger fuss when it’s their food that’s involved?

Why would a brand voluntarily associate their product with viewers’ deep-seated memories of being bullied as a child?

What is it about Burger King’s bullying experiment that makes it so impactful?

Marketing researchers seeking to find where their ad sits on an emotion correspondence map traditionally aren’t pleased to see their ad closely related to ‘hate’, ‘disgust’, and ‘shock’.

But that’s exactly the area Burger King wanted their advert to engage their audience. And the result? It’s one of the top performing ads in our analysis of 100 from 2017. Why?

  • The ad’s content is challenging. Would you get up and help fend off the bullies, or sit back and whinge over your Whopper? We’d all like to imagine ourselves as the heroes in this story. Burger King makes you think – and their brand lingers long after the ad has concluded – asking questions you might not be able to answer.
  • Sharing is caring. The ad is virality bait. Its viewers are coerced into wanting to demonstrate they hold certain values. How? They can raise awareness about bullying by sharing the ad, obviously.
  • It’s capped off with a sweet sense of redemption. Burger King’s ad doesn’t leave you in a negative state of mind, it leaves you in a transformative state of mind. You’re unlikely to forget the brand that instigated this sense of hope, therefore the ad is a perfect precursor to behavior change.
  • It’s unique. Unlike many other ads on the top 100 list, this was neither a 2017 Super Bowl ad or a Christmas ad. It excelled on its own terms and in its own way.

5 examples of uncomfortable ads

NHS anti-smoking ad in the UK

Anti-smoking ads tend to have a repulsive quality. The idea being that viewers forever associate smoking with its grizzly consequences. Blood and guts ooze from this example – but it does well in getting you to leave well alone.

Audi RS4 spider ad

There are plenty of positive and artistic ways you can sell a car (similar to how the experiences associated with alcohol and fragrances are depicted in ads). Audi took an alternative choice here, and opted for something utterly terrifying – and unforgettable.

Anti-speeding ad in New Zealand

Here’s another example of pulling the viewers’ heartstrings to make them stop and listen. But this ad doesn’t pull any punches, determined to leave its viewers in a serious state of shock.

Save The Children campaign

Just because it’s not happening on your doorstep, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Highlighting the perils faced by child refugees, this ad’s goal is to encourage the viewer to see beyond their news bulletins and to get up and help.

Little Baby’s Ice Cream

A whopping 74k thumbs on YouTube can’t be wrong. This is visually disturbing. It sounds spooky. Everything about this ad is unsettling. That said – it’s certainly striking. It’s unique. It stays with you. Fancy an ice cream?


Learn more about 2017’s top 100 ads

Find out which other ads featured on our list of the top 100 from 2017 and why they performed so well by downloading our study.

We tested the best 100 ads of 2017 with a consumer research panel and drilled into the top 10 using our meta-analysis platform, Zappi.Pro. We extracted patterns and trends from the best ads and mapped audience reactions to find out what works.

A James Hodges

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A James Hodges

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