Shock Advertising in ‘Oliver Twist’

By 19th century standards, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist contains one of the most shocking, violent scenes in all of Victorian literature. Of course, I am speaking of the moment when Nancy is brutally murdered by her lover, Bill Sikes. In the long run, Dickens capitalized off of this scene greatly. Towards the end of his life, he took to performing the scene live as a dramatic reading, an event that turned out to be immensely popular.

It is interesting to think about the concept of “shock advertising” in relation to Dickens’ works. According to Wikipedia, shock advertising¬†“deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals.” Anti-smoking ad campaigns that employ disturbing metaphors for the act of smoking are a common example of this form of advertising. Shock advertising has traditionally been very effective in getting the point of the advertising across. However, as the global population has perhaps gotten desensitized to the “shock factor,” some posit that these ads are not as effective as they once were.

Given this definition, it seems that the aforementioned scene in Oliver Twist could be viewed as Charles Dickens’ using “shock advertising” in order to advertise for himself. After all, Nancy’s murder scene is probably the most memorable moment in Oliver Twist, and by some accounts helped Dickens garner massive fame. This scene checks off many parts of the definition of shock advertising. It’s obviously deliberate, it is clearly startling to the audience, and it sharply deviates from most normal social values and personal ideals. 19th century audiences were likely not used to reading (or seeing) these violent scenes, and they would have been able to take in the shock at its full value. And, as time shows, it was clearly effective in transforming Charles Dickens’ into the preeminent Victorian novelist.

But, if Dickens wrote Nancy’s death scene in Oliver Twist (either intentionally or unintentionally) as a form of shock advertising, how would he have felt about the practice itself. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems that if Dickens’ felt comfortable sharing this gruesome scene with the general public, he would have been okay with the use of the “shock factor” in advertisements. If shock advertising in Dickens’ day were an effective way to get people interested in a product or idea, it seems that Dickens would have approved.

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