Don’t Be Afraid to be Provocative
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Don’t Be Afraid to be Provocative


Don’t Be Afraid to be Provocative


pro·​voke | \ prə-ˈvōk  \

transitive verb

a: to call forth (a feeling, an action, etc.) 

b: to stir up purposely

While the word “provoke” often connotes an angry response, the above definition from Merriam Webster could double as a definition of what effective marketing should always do. When I purchased my “Books” baseball cap at Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic (a great place in Carroll Gardens), I didn’t realize how provocative this little black hat could be.

Everywhere I go – to the grocery store, the local taqueria, the dry cleaner, you name it – people look at the word “books” emblazoned across my forehead and say, “hey, I like your hat.” That’s usually followed by a conversation about what we’re reading right now, and off we go. Planting that seed, inspiring an emotional response, and getting that conversation started, these are the things you want your marketing to achieve. Sometimes a little provocation can be just the ticket.

I’m not talking about evoking pearl-clutching feelings of insult or outrage. No, it’s really just a matter of disruption, poking your audience and getting their attention. It might be just a wordless image. Advertising pioneer George Lois was a master of this kind of approach, and the iconic ads he created for Volkswagen back in the 1960s (see some of them here) are prime examples of the element of surprise and a bit of gentle provocation working together for maximum results.

“Advertising is the art of breaking rules, not the science of making them,” Lois once said. “Great advertising should have the impact of a punch in the mouth.”

While popular culture serves up endless opportunities to jump on this or that bandwagon, not following the crowd and avoiding come-and-go trends is a better way to provoke and engage.

“Trends can tyrannize; trends are traps,” Lois said. “In any creative industry, the fact that others are moving in a certain direction is always proof positive, at least to me, that a new direction is the only direction.”

Lois advises caution and highly recommends that you know your audience thoroughly before “shooting from the hip (or the lip).” Don’t get sarcastic and don’t go negative, but at the same time don’t shy away from those out-of-left-field inspirers (like my baseball cap) that provoke a response and get the conversation started. 

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