Shock, outrage, fear, pain, disgust- the armoury of contemporary advertising contains some brutal weapons. But what are they saying about us?
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Some ads, like perfume, envelop us in an aura of seductive fragrance. Some, like snipers, aim for the head or heart. Others, like missiles, fly beneath our radar and hit raw, subconscious nerves.

While most advertising, especially in Britain, is a jolly romp through trivia, fantasy, nostalgia and innuendo, a small percentage go for the jugular. The mildest of these aim for shock with a smile; they are harmless fun. The next level addresses serious issues and justifiably uses shock tactics as integral to the subject. Finally, there is gratuitous shock - or how to lose friends but influence people.

Some mild shocks are administered by simply playing with ideas and images. Picture the scene. The creative team is charged with the task of producing a striking ad by combining the themes of Habitat and "their new tribal collection". They think laterally, then merge the ideas - literally. The result is an arresting image that fulfils the brief and evokes a smile, thanks to a liberal helping of imagination, wit and some nifty computer manipulation. Successful ads slap you in the face, and then kiss you better.

One of our strongest instincts is to understand. When presented with an unexplained picture we will be drawn in to read the copy in search of an explanation. So when we see a half shaved head, we want to know why. And, if we have to work at finding the solution, we are more likely to remember the ad. Those familiar with the TV campaign for Nissan Micra, which ran concurrently with the print ads, would have already deduced that she loves her car so much, you borrow it at your peril.

The use of shock is warranted, even unavoidable, when addressing truly shocking issues, such as cruelty and debilitating or fatal illness. Yet we're a cynical lot, anaesthetised to images of pain and suffering. As a result, charity ads have to work harder to breach our barriers. The torn back in the Multiple Sclerosis ad makes us almost feel the pain, and therefore empathise with the message.

Symbolism is poetic shorthand that represents reality in digestible form. The two cigarettes in the shape of a cross tell a clear story, reinforced with the poignant pun about packing it in.

Ads which use humour or turn logic on its head win our affections. We are amused and enjoy sharing the joke. You look at the boring photograph of a frying pan, and wonder what it could be about. Again, realisation brings a smile.

Ads that are not selling anything can be as hard-hitting as they like. The anti-prejudice ads don't suffer euphemisms gladly. Similarly, the Lynx anti-fur coat ad is filled with a feeling of justified rage. The copyline was so long that it only appeared on a very limited number of sites, yet became a classic because of the strength of the idea.

Benetton ads, on the other hand, often stir up a hornet's nest of trouble. The campaigns abandoned colourful fashion shoots in the mid-Eighties and addressed global issues in a new and controversial use of the advertising forum. But they were unable to carry the majority of the public along with it. Their barbed wire ad, for example, was supposed to represent prisons - real or imagined - that surround many people's lives.

In yer face ads plug into attitudes and behaviour already widely seen in the movies. The Don't Tell It campaign began with a cinema commercial designed to run with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

The ad showing a goldfish in a blender invites us to imagine the next logical step. The poster heralded the release of a rock album called "Carne Crua" (Raw Meat). The less robust among us see this as gratuitous shock tactics, and are not amused. Clearly a case of one man's meat is another man's poison

'Shock in Advertising' by Dave Saunders is published by Batsford at pounds 20