Shock Value: Great Use of Surprise in Video

All nonprofit communications professionals have been here before: you have a big campaign launching or a new report coming out, and you need to find a way to get your audience interested without rehashing the same old information or messaging.

One way to capture your audience’s attention is to use the element of surprise. Surprise or shock works especially well in video, which can easily translate emotional messages to a broad audience. The best part is that your nonprofit can work the element of surprise into your next video no matter the size of your budget. With a bit of creativity, you can find ways to apply surprise to all kinds of stories.

Let’s start with a traditional, high production value example: Unicef UK’s “Vaccine for Violence” video. At the start of the video, a young boy walks up to the counter in an ominous pharmacy. The pharmacist sees that the boy has a black eye and diagnoses him with a bad case of “gang violence,” and offers a treatment to cure it. The walls begin to shake. Pills and bottles of medicine fall from the shelves. The boy’s eyes widen in fear, and suddenly we’re transported back to the living room of the boy’s house, where we hear an older man pounding on the door, and yelling for someone to open up. The video ends with the message, "Every five minutes, a child dies as a result of violence. There's not vaccine. Only you."



Unicef’s video uses some serious shock value to catch the viewer’s attention and keep them watching up to the final message. Each twist and turn the video takes keeps the viewer on edge, constantly wondering what’s going to happen next.

The video was designed to support Unicef’s “Children in Danger” campaign, highlighting their ground-breaking report on violence. Nonprofits and social causes often have to find unique ways to drive people to valuable information that doesn’t peak the audience’s interest at face value. By combining the element of surprise with well-placed YouTube annotations, Unicef was able to capture their audience and drive them to the report and surrounding campaign.

Salvation Army Canada uses the element of surprise in a totally different way in their video “Tunnel.” The video opens on people walking by an impoverished woman. A few seconds into the clip, a buffer screen appears. The video’s message states, “We all get frustrated by this,” then after returning to video of poor woman asks, “Why not this?”



This 20-second clip makes use of every moment, challenging the viewer to take a look at their own privilege of sitting there watching a YouTube video. Salvation Army Canada played on this metacognitive gimmick, running another YouTube video and a series of posters with the same premise. The surprise of the buffer screen takes the viewer off guard, forcing them to realize that concern for high-speed internet is trivial when compared to the needs of people in poverty. This approach would be particularly advantageous for mobile distribution since viewers have a shorter attention span when they're on their phones.

No matter how low or high your production value is, you should always make your video authentic and emotionally compelling. By using the element of surprise, you can pull your viewers in, force them to think critically about your message, and drive them to action.

Check out Into Focus, See3’s nonprofit video guide, for more video best practices.

Author: Stacy Moon
  • Video
  • Storytelling
  • Nonprofits