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The real value of shock value for writers

Writing that shocks is writing that makes impact, for better or for worse.

Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, University of Utrecht, writes about the power of racy material in his book "Why We Watch." There’s something special about the power of shock that creates a quick emotional sensation. Content that grabs so strong that you stop. Reread. Pass to a friend just to make sure your eyes aren't deceiving you.


If you can achieve that level of interest, your writing will get noticed and shared. However, you must consider risk vs. reward, return value vs. shock value, because your readers will snap back in two ways.

“Yes, this is awesome.” or “Yikes, this is awful.”


But when it's awesome

We all know what happens when a shocking ad flops. People will talk about a brand for all the wrong reasons. But that's no reason to completely give up on the idea. People do like to be shocked, if only evidenced by the popularity of horror movies. Using shock correctly just takes a keen understanding of one’s audience to know what they will find offensive against what will rally them for your cause.

An example of shock ads that have worked are in the health industry. A study conducted at the University of Manitoba concluded the following about the effectiveness of shocking ads for health organizations:

The publicity that is often generated as a consequence of the norm violating nature of shocking ads need not be considered to be necessarily negative and ineffective. In a public-policy context we have shown that, though a shock ads generates an acknowledgement of norm violation among viewers, it also ensures that subjects remember the message and engage in message-relevant behavior. In a cluttered advertising environment, shocking ad content ensures that the message will be heard.

To be fair, most of the time shock is not appropriate; however, the power of shock has been tested to get your message heard and remembered.

But before it gets awful

You should ask these questions:

Is it worth the risk?
Is there a more charming way it could be said?
Are you alienating anyone?
Will people get it?
Have you tested it?
Do you want your brand to be remembered this way?

If you can't get a perfect score on these six questions, perhaps you can be more subtle or more creative.
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