Shock Advertising: Theories, Risks, and Outcomes Analyzed Using the Case of Barnardo's

By Catrise P. Noel
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Founded in 1867 by Dr. Thomas Barnardo to help "abused, vulnerable, forgotten and neglected children," children's charity Barnardo's now helps over 110,000 children every year (Barnardo's, 2009). Although traditionally advertising has been used to "equate products with positive cultural or social experiences" (Klein, 2000, p.29), Barnardo's has abandoned such "positive" practices, alternatively opting for a "disturbing image [to present] the need for support" (Goddard, 1998, p.10) thus making its advertisements a vivid reality (Klein, 2000). As a charity, Barnardo's is subject to closer scrutiny and tighter accountability than many organisations (Brassington & Pettit, 1997, p.1104), specifically relating to how they use advertising to communicate with the public.

Barnardo's Coackroach Ad

Barnardo's "Child poverty campaign" (2003) is largely regarded as the charity's most controversial print advertisement which was banned by The Advertising Standards Authority (Carvel, 2003). Williamson (1978) asserts that advertisements are ubiquitous and unavoidable; therefore it is imperative to examine the theories which dictate the potential interpretations of this advertisement.

The most striking aspect of this advertisement is the appearance of a cockroach crawling out of a baby's mouth. The cockroach is not authentic, but a metaphorical reference to the destitution of many children. Max Black's (1909-1988) interaction theory of metaphor is useful when examining the use of such an image as "the image's signification is assuredly intentional" (Barthes, 1964, p.22), designed to create a "maximally effective impact" on the audience (Forceville, 1996, p.68).

A metaphor, be it linguistic or pictorial, does not divulge itself at merely the word or the isolated image, but at the discourse, thus placing importance on the relevance of the nonverbal context (Forceville, 1996); how the singular image of the insect interacts within the other elements in which is it proposed, specifically the baby and the white background. Ricoeur (1977, p.74-180) explains that "metaphor…is a phenomenon of discourse…language passes outside itself [and] reference is the mark of the self transcendence of language."

The image presents a visual statement whereby elements are identifiable as a primary and secondary subject, the baby and insect respectively. Both are systems rather than things, interacting via an "implicative complex" understood as a totality of properties belonging to the secondary subject which are projected upon the primary subject (Forceville, 1996). Theoretically, the architect of the advertisement has selected characteristics of the insect to induce endoxa (Aristotle, c.350 BCE) in the audience; a set of shared opinions rendering the image of the cockroach synonymous with the concept of squalor in which the baby will develop.

However, as the association is made in the minds of the receiver, the metaphorical statement must be understood in context hence requiring an inquisitive response from a proficient reader (Forceville, 1996). Arguably, the limitations become clear when proficiency is not present on the reader. Kittay (1987) argues that to understand the projection of properties from the secondary subject to the primary only in terms of Aristotle's endoxa is too restrictive, therefore hindering the scope of Black's theory. Henceforth, the theory disregards some associations that may not be articulated by spoken terms (ibid), which are apparent in some readers.

The theory of Semiotics encompasses the concept of metaphor providing an alternative explanation of Barnardo's" advertisement. Two prevailing models of semiology are presented by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who offers a dyadic approach and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who offers a triadic approach to semiology (Chandler, 1994).

Saussure defined a sign as consisting of the signifier (the form of the sign) and the signified (the conceptual representation), thus a sign is recognisable as a combined signifier with a specific signified, both of which are psychological and subjective (Saussure, 1916). The signifier is the cockroach whilst the concept of squalor is the signified. Umberto Eco (1976, p. 9) states that "a signification system is an autonomous semiotic construct that has an [independent] abstract mode." Therefore, the function of the image of the cockroach is to provoke associations of unpleasantness, irrespective of reader interpretation.

However, Peirce argues that without interpretation, signs are non-existent (Peirce, 1931-58), reinforcing the notion that signs do not have an intrinsic value, but rather, meaning is interdependent, reliant on subjective interpretation. Peirce's triadic approach to semiotics involves three inter-related elements; the representamen which is the form which the sign takes, an interpretant: the sense made of the sign and the object to which the sign refers (Chandler, 1994). Specifically, how we understand the relationship between the sign and the object (Atkin, 2006), in this case how the reader interprets the relationship between the depiction of a cockroach in a baby's mouth and conditions of child poverty.

Peirce was also concerned with the perceptual judgement, explaining "percept" as the "total content of immediately present awareness" (Robin, 2006, p. 48). This judgement one makes, based on the presence of a cockroach and a baby in a connective context, "works without the control of rationality." (Andersen & Sørensen, 2009, p. 85). So, rationally one may chose to disassociate cockroaches with dirt, however, the absence of such control means the association is forged in ones psychological sphere pertaining to, at least, an awareness of the notion of what is being represented.

The presence of "awareness" is elaborated on in the uses and gratifications approach whereby the focus lies with what people do with media based on the psychological & social origination of their needs and expectations (McQuail &Windahl, 1993). "Advertising texts are seen as potentially involving complex notions of audience, where readers have to work hard to decode messages" (Goddard, 1998, p. 8) therefore the audience is always active hence media content is always subject to interpretation (Livingstone, 2004). Accordingly, interpretations of what a cockroach in a baby's mouth means in the context of an advertisement will differ; many may perceive it as just a strategy (Hamstig, 2005), used to evoke pathos in those who are emotionally receptive to the campaign, causing them to use the advertisement as a motivation to donate money, in turn gratifying their need for esteem or respect one obtains from others (Maslow, 1943).

Whilst critics and scholars alike will continue to dissert a plurality of perspectives regarding the justifiability of ostentatious, provocative and controversial advertising, examining the theories provides an exposition of the way the elements interact with each other, explaining the potential impact of such advertising on an audience. Sensationalised media coverage may appear to detract from the validity of the charity that risked insulting the public, yet Barnardo's acquired attention, made the audience aware of a commendable cause (Goldstein & Daniels, 2002), irrespective of varied decoding, ensuring future donations that place Barnardo's at the forefront of the struggle to end child poverty in the United Kingdom, suggesting that even contentious means may ultimately be justified by the result (BBC, 2001; Hamstig, 2005 & Cassidy, 2009).


Andersen, C. & Sørensen, B. (2009) How to analyse comprehension in print advertising: Advertising effect from a Peircean perspective. Signs - International Journal of Semiotics. vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 71 -114.

Aristotle (c.350 BCE) Topics. Translated by Pickard-Cambridge, W. A. (1994) Available from:

Atkin, A. (2006) Peirce's Theory of Signs. [Internet] Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy. Available from:> [Accessed: 22 November 2009]

Barthes, R. (1961). Rhetoric of the image. In: The responsibility of forms. Translated by Howard, R. (1986). Oxford: Blackwell

BBC (2001) Barnardo's defends shock adverts. [Internet] BBC News. Available from:

Black, M. (1979a), Ortony, A. (ed.) More about metaphor; Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brassington, F. & Pettit, S. (1997) Principles of Marketing. 4th ed. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Carvel, J. (2003) Child poverty adverts banned. [Internet]. The Guardian. Available from:

Cassidy, A. (2009) Barnardo's TV ad shock tactics help public awareness. [Internet]. Campaign. Available from:

Chandler, D. (1994) Semiotics for Beginners [Internet] Available form:

Child poverty campaign (2003) [Online Image] Available at: http://www.Barnardo'

Eco, U. (1976) Sebeok, T.A. (ed.) Theory of semiotics. Milan: Indiana University Press.

Forceville, C. (1996) Pictorial metaphor in advertising. London: Routeledge.

Goddard, A. (1998) The language of advertising. London: Routeledge.

Goldstein, D. & Daniels, M. (2002) Rimini, M. (ed.) Advertising works: proving the effectiveness of marketing communications; cases from the IPA effectiveness awards. 12. Henley-on-Thames: World Advertising Research Centre

Hamstig, L. (2005) Shock advertising is a successful strategy for non–profit organisations to create awareness. Unpublished BA Thesis. University of the Arts London.

History of Barnardo's (2009) [Internet]. Available from: http://www.Barnardo'

Kittay, E.F. (1987) Metaphor: Its cognitive force and linguistic structure. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Klein, N. (2000) No Logo. London: Flamingo.

Livingstone, S. (2004) The challenge of changing audiences: Or, what is the audience researcher to do in the age of the internet. European Journal of Communication. [Internet] vol. 19, (1), pp. 75-86. Available from:

Maslow, A.H. (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review. [Internet] Vol. 50, pt. 1, pp. 370-396. Available from:

McQuail, D. & Windahl, S (1993) Communication models for the study of mass communication. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited

Peirce, C. S. (1931-58) Hartshorne, C., Weiss, P. & Burks, A.W. (Eds.) Collected Writings (8 Vols.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1977). The rule of metaphor: multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language. Translated by Czerny, R. et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Robin, R.S. (2006) Lewis, Peirce, and the complexity of classical pragmatism. Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society. vol. 42, pt. 1, pp. 45 – 53.

Saussure, F. (1916) Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Harris, R. (1983). London: Duckworth.

Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

With products available in more than 180 countries, Procter & Gamble is one of the largest global advertisers. Considering today's global marketplace, it has become increasingly necessary for multinational companies... MORE»
In recent decades, research has focused on the powerful effects of advertising on negative body image. While researchers have studied how the general female population reacts to various advertising techniques, little research has been published on how female collegiate athletes are affected by fitness advertisements. This study... MORE»
Like other communication-related fields, such as broadcast journalism and print journalism that typically have their own student-led organizations, strategic communications students obtain hands-on experience through student-run agencies, which helps them secure internships and jobs after graduation. This study examined what factors... MORE»
The purpose of this study was to determine whether Generation Y women respond more to athletic ads that embodied a second-wave feminist ideology or a third-wave, post-structuralist ideology. A focus group was conducted and its findings revealed that the women's ideological preferences were not based on their generation, but their... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Business & Communications

2021, Vol. 13 No. 09
This research lies at the nexus of political communication theory relating to emotional affect and political processing and the burgeoning field of sentiment analysis. News coverage can affect opinion both through the information it provides and... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 06
This research study explores factors that present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report. The research purpose was to explore human, workplace/organizational, and external factors identified by industrial... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11
In its beta release, Google Glass was positioned as a groundbreaking technology - a glimpse into a future that has long been promised in science fiction. It was met with media fanfare and consumer interest, despite costing more than most PCs on... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Predicting the future of the news industry begins with understanding the history of newspapers and the current news delivery landscape. Because the Internet has brought fundamental shifts to news distribution, successful organizations of the future... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Instagram allows users to share a snapshot of their lives with a mass audience in a matter of seconds. This capability and power has not gone unnoticed by celebrities, who are highly aware of the impact their social media accounts have on fans and... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Since its development, YouTube, the world's third most popular online destination, has transformed from a video-sharing site into a job opportunity for content creators in both new and mainstream media. Based on content analysis, the study examined... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Today, more than 15 million Americans practice yoga, making the ancient Indian discipline synonymous with the Western society's culture of wellness. As a way to market themselves, practitioners and instructors of yoga have utilized Instagram &ndash... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


"Should I Go to Graduate School?"
The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts
5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article