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Is this too shocking?

Research Question

Is the use of shocking and grotesque imagery in advertising productive? Images of suffering in visual communication design and advertising. 

I was intrigued by the topic of controversy on publishing images portraying suffering and the indeterminate nature of their impact. After seeing examples of this topic, such as Kevin Carter’s ‘Starving Child and Vulture‘ and Kenneth Jarecke’s ‘The Death of an Iraqi soldier, I recognised similar shocking imagery in my study of visual communication. With the wide creative freedom digital programs offer us, such as Photoshop, an increase in advertisements confronting global issues has emerged. There are many designers that I admire that have extreme talent and successfully communicate messages of environmental crisis, health issues, social issues, and political dangers with limited text. Conversely, I wonder if their success is delaying the desired change. Are we pushing the limits of social impact design too far and scaring viewers away instead? How productive are these shocking designs and advertisements?

So, why is this worth investigating?

The significance of this topic is far greater than many presume. Firstly, it correlates to the rise of social media, which has given individuals the ability to communicate and share global issues that commonly were hidden in previous years. This has started trends of protest and a mass chain of communication between those who want to raise awareness and create change. Graphic designers can use their skill sets of visual communication to help start conversations and educate others. Visual communication can catch others attention and has been seen to leave a lasting impression towards the public more effectively compared to written information. It is therefore vital to make sure that the designs (visual information) shared publicly can effectively communicate correct information and support those in need, not scare the public away from the cause.

Graphic designers need to be aware that although their design has the intention to communicate a certain message, the viewers may receive a different meaning. This topic should become a mandatory consideration within artistic processes and creative problem-solving.

What about this topic has been already discussed?

Gruesome photos on cigarette packages reduce tobacco use’, World health Organisation

by Rob Cunningham, 2009:

The tactic of shocking people through advertisements has been used for many years, ranging from the use of propaganda to grotesque imagery upon cigarette packaging. The latter example has provided many studies investigating the impact of shocking imagery on the health effects of long-term tobacco consumption. This particular article not only expresses the decrease in sales of tobacco after the implementation of shocking imagery but also points out certain design elements that are effective. The scale of the image is encouraged to cover the majority of the packaging as it is more visible and therefore memorable. It states that alternating series of different package warnings help resonate with a wider audience, reducing the chance of viewers becoming desensitised (Cunningham 2009, p. 569). Elements on the packaging other than the warning are required to be plain, small and overall, less visible. This instance depicts the success of shock imagery in advertising and warnings, in turn revealing the power and responsibility of the design teams when targeting a global issue.

‘Graphic Design, the Communication of Social Issues and the Evolution of the Social Alternative Design Framework over Forty Years’, Social Alternatives

by Debra Livingston, 2018:

This article in particular helped build my understanding of how ethics is already integrated into graphic design practices. It is in agreement that designers can use their profession to help make their community a better place through communicating a socially conscious design (Livingston 2018, p. 49). It also raises an interesting theory that social impact designs created for commercial gain risk diverging from the cause. It connects this theory to ‘human-centred design’ which Livingston (2018, p. 50) states is a process that places human needs and limitations at a higher priority (non-profit) compared to prioritising self-centred ideologies (for-profit). Additionally, this article explores how designers can visually communicate through semiotics, which I find is vital when trying to understand why designers go for more shocking works.

‘Shockvertising: An exploratory investigation in to attitudinal variations and emotion reactions to shock advertising’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour

by Rosalind Jones, Sara Parry, Matthew Robinson and Philip Stern, 2013:

This article explores the response of shock tactics in advertising, not limited to graphic design. It notes that such advertising creates reactions of sadness, guilt and fear which is used to encourage attitude and behaviour change in a more extreme way. Similar to Cunningham’s article, it explores how these shocking advertisements can create different reactions for different viewers and that culture is a potential factor to this reaction (Prendergast and Huang in Cunningham 2009, p. 112). For example, an advertisement discussing AIDS may be more shocking towards cultures that aren’t as open to conversations about STI’s. It brings attention to shock advertisements about global health issues that have been more successful in raising awareness and enforcing difficult conversations to the public, such as seat belt safety, acquired immune deficiency syndrome awareness and smoking (Jones, Parry, Robinson and Stern 2013, p. 112).


Although this topic has just been brought to my attention, I am deeply fascinated by the power that images and designs have in successfully communicating towards an audience with visual elements alone. To use this skill set to help raise awareness of those in need is an honourable aspiration. Though, are shocking images a productive way to communicate the severity and horror of global issues?

For this research project, I would love to communicate with both designers and individuals who are unaware of design practices, to have a balanced insight into how shocking advertisements succeed or fail. I have yet to decide whether surveys or interviews are the best way to approach this project. I am intrigued to discover more about this topic to inform myself and others on how to improve our ethical design practices.


Reference list

Cahill, M 2014, Screen shot of a scene in ‘I Origins’, image, TED Blog, viewed 20 March 2021, <https://blog.ted.com/how-a-tedx-talk-informed-i-origins/&gt;.

Carter, K 1993, Starving Child and Vulture, image, TIME, viewed 20 March 2021, <http://100photos.time.com/photos/kevin-carter-starving-child-vulture&gt;.

Cunningham, R 2009, ‘Gruesome photos on cigarette packages reduce tobacco use’, World Health Organisation, vol. 87, no. 8, pp. 569-567.

Eye Blink GIF, 2013, image, TraceLoops, GIPHY, viewed 20 March 2021, <https://giphy.com/gifs/matthiasbrown-eye-blink-JixztW5CANqus&gt;.

Jarecke, K 1991, The Death of an Iraqi soldier, Highway of Death, image, Rare Historical Photos, viewed 18 March 2021, <https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/dont-photograph-people-like-mom-will-think-war-see-tv-gulf-war-1991/&gt;.

Jones, R, Parry, S, Robinson, M & Stern, P 2013, ‘Shockvertising: An exploratory investigation in to attitudinal variations and emotional reactions to shock advertising’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 112-121.

Livingston, D 2018, ‘Graphic Design, the Communication of Social Issues and the Evolution of the Social Alternative Design Framework over Forty Years’, Social Alternatives, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 47-52.

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Published by Kirstywordpress

University student - Graphic design

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