Shock value is the potential of an action (as a public execution), image, text, or other form of communication to provoke a reaction of sharp disgust, shock, anger, fear, or similar negative emotions. ‘Off-color humor’ is an Americanism used to describe jokes, prose, poems, and blue comedy that deals with topics considered to be in poor taste or overly vulgar by the prevailing morality of a culture. Most commonly labeled as ‘off-color’ are acts concerned with a particular ethnic group or gender.
Other off-color topics include domestic abuse, profanity, ‘toilet humor,’ national inferiority, ‘dead baby jokes.’ Generally, the intent of off-color humor is to induce laughter by evoking a feeling of shock and surprise. In this way, off-color humor is related to other forms of postmodern humor, such as the anti-joke (a joke that is intentionally not funny, or lacking in intrinsic meaning).
In the 1990s and modern era, comedians such as Dave Chappelle use shocking content to draw attention to their criticism of social issues, especially censorship and the socioeconomic divide. The highly praised television show ‘South Park’ also popularized the use of offensive humor, for which the show has become infamous. ‘The Aristocrats’ is perhaps the most famous dirty joke in the US due to its high shock value and is certainly one of the best-known and most oft-repeated among comedians themselves.
Shock advertising or ‘shockvertising’ is a type of advertising generally regarded as one that ‘deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals.’ It is the employment in advertising or public relations of ‘graphic imagery and blunt slogans to highlight’ a public policy issue, goods, or services. Shock advertising is designed principally to break through the advertising ‘clutter’ to capture attention and create buzz, and also to attract an audience to a certain brand or bring awareness to a certain public service issue, health issue, or cause (e.g., urging drivers to use their seatbelts, promoting STD prevention, bringing attention to racism and other injustices, or discouraging smoking among teens).
The Benetton Group has come under particular scrutiny for the use of shock advertisements in its campaigns, leading to public outrage and consumer complaints. However, several of Benetton’s advertisements have also been the subject of much praise for heightening awareness of significant social issues and for ‘taking a stand’ against infringements on human rights, civil liberties, and environmental rights. Benetton’s advertisements have featured images of portions of men’s and women’s bodies with tattoos that say ‘HIV Positive,’ a priest and a nun leaning to kiss each other, as well as a group of real death row inmates (alluding to issues concerning capital punishment).
‘Shock rock’ is a wide umbrella term for artists who combine rock music with elements of theatrical shock value in live performances. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was arguably the first shock rocker. After the success of his 1957 hit ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ Hawkins began to perform a recurring stunt at many of his live shows: he would emerge from a coffin, sing into a skull-shaped microphone and set off smoke bombs.
Marilyn Manson is perhaps the most notable act in the shock rock scene today. Known for his controversial stage persona, Manson and his band dress in outlandish makeup and costumes, and have engaged in intentionally shocking behavior both onstage and off. In the past, their lyrics often received criticism for their anti-religious sentiment and references to sex, violence and drugs. Manson’s live shows are known for their uniquely theatrical stage presence, which has included Manson burning the American flag, ripping and burning the Bible and tossing it into the crowd, self-mutilating himself on stage, being pulled onto stage in a Roman chariot being pulled by naked women, wearing outrageous costumes and so on. Other notable acts include Alice Cooper, Rammstein, Iggy Pop, Kiss, GWAR, Twisted Sister, GG Allin, Slipknot, and the Misfits.
Shock value is also big in Hip hop music, and sometimes under the genre of ‘horrorcore.’ One notable artist is Eminem, known as possibly one of the most controversial rappers of all time, with his lyrics using the word ‘faggot’ and songs about murdering his wife, rape, and the use of drugs.