In the dictionary, the word “provoke” is defined: “to stimulate or give rise to a reaction or emotion in someone.” It’s usually associated with strong and unwelcome reactions.

The word “provocative” is defined as “causing annoyance, anger, or another strong reaction” or “arousing sexual desire or interest.” In either case, it’s done deliberately.

However, in direct marketing, being provocative means that your headline is not boring “vanilla” but is more interesting. It gets the reader’s attention and arouses an emotion. It generates further interest, and gets people talking. The more interest you generate, the more response and, ultimately, the more sales you get.

So, sometimes it pays to be a bit provocative. Here’s how you can do it:


It’s been said for some time now that “sex sells.” What does that mean? It can be the use of any allusion to sex in writing or in images, to sell a product:

  • The toothpaste that promises “a whiter, sexier smile and fresh breath”
  • The perfume commercial that shows guys noticing the girl when she starts using the fragrance
  • The online ad for a fitness product that shows young women ogling ripped, middle-aged men

Of course, you know your typical customer/prospect best, so you can gauge if using sex is the right approach or if it will alienate people.

Though often effective, sex is not the only way to be provocative in your marketing. Anything that causes an emotional reaction is considered provocative.

With a little thought and research, you can tap into “provocative power” without offending anyone.

One way is to study the covers of Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, the National Enquirer and similar publications with a marketer’s eye. These publications’ selling power is fully in the emotion-provoking copy on their covers.

A few recent examples:

  • “Donald & Melania Fight Back: How They’ll Crush Their Enemies”
  • The Bachelor Betrayal: I Made a Huge Mistake…I Had To Take a Risk.”
  • “Is Your House Trying to Kill You?”

Conflict, sex, personal relationships, environmental menaces—these are all big emotional “buttons” for people. And there are plenty of milder (but still effective ones). You push them and cause a reaction. The one(s) you use might be broad or they might be more specialized and unique to your audience.

Study the Pro-vokers

Along with starting to pay attention to the provocative value of tabloid and magazine headlines, you could also start looking at and learning from the work of master marketing copywriters, some of whom can be very provocative.

Among these is Gary Halbert. It’s said that his provocative “Can You Look Younger?” headline helped propel Vikki Lamotta Cosmetics into a $30 million winner. Among Gary’s other provocative headlines were “Half-Dead Cuban Washes Ashore in Miami With Strangest Secret That Can Double The Income of Most Americans!” (That’s pretty provocative.)

Another guy to study is Bill Jayme, who wrote winning campaign after winning campaign, starting with his very first direct marketing letter as a copywriter at Time magazine. Among his most famous headlines was now-legendary envelope strapline for a Psychology Today magazine subscription campaign: “Do you close the bathroom door even when you’re the only one home?”

These guys were professional provokers (“pro-vokers”). Google them and “greatest copywriters” and study what they wrote. Get a “feel” for what makes a provocative headline.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Great ideas—provocative ones that you can adapt for your own marketing campaigns—are all around. So pay attention. They can be found in the subject lines of marketing emails in your in-box or in the direct mail that you receive. You might see a billboard or….

Take note of headlines that grab you. Get a copy and put it into your “swipe file” of copy examples that impressed you or that you might use for inspiration or adaptation in the future.

If you do these things, you will end up being a more provocative and effective marketer, even if you stay entirely away from the topic of sex.


Postcards that will fill your customers with desire—for your product or service, that is. Log on now to and design your next postcard using our customizable templates (or your own design). Then target your customers and mail it out, all from your laptop.

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