Home Intelligence Is the Use of Shock Imagery Effective for Drawing Public Attention to an Issue?

Is the Use of Shock Imagery Effective for Drawing Public Attention to an Issue?


By Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, Program Director, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

In thinking about the way we understand the world around us, social psychologists have made the case that it’s our perceptions—or our interpretation of events and situations—that matter more to us than the actual facts involved. With this being the case, the way information is framed and presented can have a direct impact on the way we think about things and formulate opinions on issues.

Since there is so much going on in the world around us, some organizations within the animal rights movement have taken to using shocking images and tactics as a way to grab our attention and cause a change in our beliefs and behaviors. When it comes to interests groups, their use of attention-seeking behavior and advertising is done to gain support for a cause as well as solicit funds, recruit new members, and bring about a change in beliefs.

Why Framing an Issue is Important
One way that groups can manipulate the way we think about things is through issue framing. In order to appeal to a target audience, a message or policy can be framed in different ways that appeal to different sets of audience beliefs. When it comes to the issues of animal rights and animal liberation, values that are promoted by organizations may not necessarily be commonly held beliefs.

While many people believe that animal cruelty should not take place, people hold different views of what policies against “animal cruelty” should look like. For example, many people might agree that animal crushing constitutes animal cruelty, however, when it comes to eating meat, or the use of animals in medical testing for AIDS and cancer research, the lines become blurred. For this reason, the way an issue is framed plays a large role in how people think about and make decisions about that issue.

Similar to “media spin,” interest groups can frame problems to impact the way we think about things. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) within the United States presents an excellent example of issue framing. On the one hand, the use of UAVs within the United States is argued to be beneficial when it comes to increased security. However, the flip side of this is that the use of UAVs within the United States may negatively impact personal privacy. The way an issue is framed is meant to draw a person’s attention in a certain direction.

The Use of Shock Imagery
Shock imageryIncreasingly, media campaigns have utilized shocking, and at times, grotesque imagery. Shock imagery is not something that is exclusive to the animal rights movement but can also be seen in anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns. Within the animal rights movement, we have seen shock imagery used by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) such as their “Holocaust on a Plate” campaign that compares images of holocaust victims to images of emaciated animals in slaughterhouses. In another exhibit, PETA has used images of human slavery and compared that to animal cruelty. In another overt display to draw attention to animal rights using shocking displays, 269Life in Israel did a branding demonstration where humans were seared with cattle brands in public areas. Other displays by this group have included the forceful milking of women in streets, and a public bloodletting demonstration.

Blurred Boundaries
Shocking imagery such as this is meant to push the boundaries of our commonly held perceptions about these issues. To blur commonly held beliefs about animal rights, the boundary-shifting strategy that is in use here is to universalize the way that we think about animals and humans (Cherry 2011). In this manner, these organizations take an extreme approach due to force this universalization by showing animal and human suffering side-by-side as an attempt to get people to view animals on the same plane as humans—worthy of protections.

Questions have arisen regarding the success of shock-imagery campaigns. On the one hand, attention is drawn to the issue, but on the other hand the message may not be taken seriously due to the extremism involved. Instead, rather than focusing on the issue, the group becomes the center of attention. Could extreme tactics such as this actually harm the organizational goals of the animal rights movement?

What do you think: Is this an effective way to gain attention to a cause?

About the Author: Dr. Nicole Drumhiller is the Program Director for the Intelligence Studies program within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University System. She is also an editorial board member for the peer-reviewed Journal of Intelligence Studies. Prior to her position at APUS, she also served as an adjunct faculty member at Washington State University where she taught courses in international relations and security studies. Dr. Drumhiller is an expert on political psychology and security studies as it relates to political leadership and decision-making, extremist groups, and weapons of mass destruction. In 2012 she completed field research in Northern Ireland which investigated identity, the manipulation of symbols, and protests within Belfast. She is currently carrying out research that investigates the use of shock-imagery within the animal rights movement.


Cherry, Elizabeth. 2010. “Shifting Symbolic Boundaries: Cultural Strategies of the Animal Rights Movement.” Sociological Forum 25, no. 3 (September): 450-475.


Online Degrees & Certificates For Intelligence Professionals

American Military University's online degrees and certificates in intelligence are taught by experienced professors. Many serve as leaders in intelligence, military or homeland security sectors and they impart real-world expertise in the online classroom. Our students also connect with an expansive network of intelligence students and professionals who are equally dedicated to service, professionalism, and the continual assessment and enhancement of the intelligence cycle.

Request Information

Please complete this form and we’ll contact you with more information about AMU. All fields except phone are required.

Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Validation message here
Ready to apply? Start your application today.

We value your privacy.

By submitting this form, you agree to receive emails, texts, and phone calls and messages from American Public University System, Inc. which includes American Military University (AMU) and American Public University (APU), its affiliates, and representatives. I understand that this consent is not a condition of enrollment or purchase.

You may withdraw your consent at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy, terms, or contact us for more details.


  1. Atten: Dr Nicole Drumhiller: re: AR’s use of “Shock Imagery”

    I’m former Army Sgt, police officer/detective and 10yr supervisor of CA humane society Criminal Investigations Unit (prosecuted 2 of the most unusual and largest criminal cases in the US) discovered what AUSA calls “the mother of all mail frauds” the Govn’t declined to prosecute because “who” involved! Including thousand+ pounds of the suspect’s incriminating docs! What you might call “media spin” in reverse. The proof part of a public deception aimed at a particular audience spending BILLIONs every year based on a lie and the use of the same “media spin” the AR’s adopted to deal with the other guys (AKC) in a growing war on “puppy mills” which in many ways benefits both? At least in the USA’s multi-billion dollar “dog world” the economics are “shocking”. Even more shocking is the federal govn’t allowing it to exist… and the actual documentation of AKC and HSUS which knew what was going on but said nothing about actual federal crime, while it continued to take advantage of “media spin” aka: shocking puppymill imagery. Object of 20yr criminal investigation across the US w/AKC whistleblowers and thousands of internal AKC doc’s obtained w/federal search warrant… not yet made public info, including then federal atty, now US-president appointed official protecting AKC by destroying evidence documents that proved AKC committing fed-crimes… It’s all about the money! (Isn’t it always) If you’re interested…

  2. On group manipulation (or exploiting science to deceive and manipulate us), media freely use subliminals without warning, especially for advertising. The typical New Yorker (city) is involuntarily exposed to approx. 5000 commercial adverts per day. That is 1,825,000 per year. This is mind poison, that is stored and churned over in the subconscious mind.

    Subliminals are a devious way of causing a person to change their behavior without knowing why or even being aware of it – they are shown or played to you, hidden under cover of other sights and sounds, and as a consequence, your intentions are changed sub-consciously while you are sleeping.

    In effect, you are being programmed. The basic audio-visual techniques to plant
    subliminals are:

    a) Figure-ground reversals;

    b) Embedding;

    c) Double entendre;

    d) Tachistoscopic displays;

    e) Low-intensity light, low volume sound, and reverse speech (you might recall subliminal so called ‘Satanist’ messages in pop music such as some of those tracks run out by the group ‘Led Zeppelin’, and in later times by some of those modern ‘heavy metal’ groups urging suicide, drugs, murder etc);

    f) Lighting and background sound.

    Being programmed unwillingly, often in conflict with one’s beliefs and above one’s shock threshold, is akin to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) when misused – It can cause conflict in the mind – mental illness. On which topic, some medical authorities estimate that by 2020, mental illness will have replaced cardiac problems (coronaries alone cost the nation $108 billion per annum) as the most prolifically serious national health problem. Law Enforcement, health authorities and civic society are going to have to get their skates on soon to adequately plan for all this, or be avalanched as it reaches a critical mass.

    Some other data:


    It is estimated that only about 17% of adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health.

    Ref: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.

    It is estimated by the UN’s World Health Organization that by 2020, mental illness (depression) will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only ischemic heart disease.

    Murray CJL, Lopez AD. The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020. Geneva, Switzerland;World Health Organization, 1996.


    Depression is the most common type of mental illness, affecting more than 26% of the U.S. adult population.

    Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2005;62:617–627.


    In 2011 doctors across the nation wrote an astounding four billion medical prescriptions, amounting to an average of 13 prescriptions for every man, woman and child in the United States. About 31 of the top prescription drugs can cause violent or aggressive behavior in those consuming them

    Around 60 or 70% of adults and 40% of children are on meds or pain killers. In the event of an ‘event’ (nuclear, RDD, prolonged outage of a regional grid), that would mean major withdrawal symptoms. With about three days’ worth of food in most homes, grocery stores would be empty or looted by day three.

    Sorry – a little off track.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *