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The Art of Strategic Provocation

A less risky way to be bold

How to be edgy without risk

Everyone knows the curl-into-the-fetal-position, soul-crushing cringe that comes from a major foot-in-the-mouth moment.  Maybe you felt it when your great aunt started talking about her “promiscuous” younger years, or when your conservative father-in-law started ranting against gay pride in front of a gay person. Maybe it came from your own wayward moments of “trying to be cool.” Or maybe you blocked it all out until we started this little journey down triggering memory lane (sorry).

The point is it’s happened to all of us, and it always leads to the same internal questions: What is happening? Why did you have to go there? Why don’t you just stay in your lane?

This can seem especially true when it comes to brands and advertisements - and the fear of becoming the cringey uncle of the media world prevents many brands and advertisers from taking any risks at all.

But we’ve got news for you - trying to be middle-of-the-road is not going to keep you from offending people. It’s just going to bore your audience and convince them that you suck. You have to be provocative and risk the cringe if you want to grab people’s attention, hold it, and leave them with a positive impression of your brand.

Here’s why.

Yes, There Is A Wrong Way to Be Provocative

Let’s start by getting this objection out of the way.

Advertising is just like anything else - there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. And there are always going to be negative consequences when you do it the wrong way.

The only difference with provocative, attention-grabbing advertising? When you get it wrong, the consequences are going to scream that much louder. After all, the point is to really grab people’s attention. You’re going to accomplish that whether the attention is good or bad.

This gives a lot of advertisers pause, and it’s one of the most major points of friction when it comes to taking the edgy, provocative leap.

But negative consequences are not the ad’s fault. They’re your tone-deaf marketer’s fault.

More often than not, the problems are common sense errors that brands could have avoided if they didn’t have someone completely clueless in their marketing room. Like when Pepsi implied that a can of soda could help with police protests and social reform (how about no). Or when Dove had an advertisement that showed a black woman turning into a white woman after applying body lotion (truly full fetal).

In any case, the problem is not the topics, it’s the people. If you have people that know how to get it right, you won’t have a problem at all.

Being Too Safe Is Worse Than Taking Things Too Far

The same can’t be said for playing things too safe. There’s just too much content out there for this to be a viable solution ever. Here’s what you’re competing with on all the major platforms:

  • There are more than 474,000 tweets PER MINUTE in 2019!
  • Instagram users upload over 100 million photos and videos every day. That’s 69,444 million posts every minute!
  • Over 3.5 billion Google searches are conducted worldwide each minute of every day. That is 2 trillion searches per year worldwide, which translates to over 40,000 search queries per second!
  • Facebook’s year-over-year advertising growth is 34%. To help you understand how big that is, in 2018 they made $54.4 billion. A decade before that they made $272 million. And people hate Facebook now.

In short, people are oversaturated and overwhelmed. And there is absolutely no way that you’re going to break through that noise with lame, neutered, or run-of-the-mill content (and trust us - all the keyword research and SEO in the world won’t make your odds much better).

To make matters worse for the “safe” or “traditional” advertiser, people today will flat out reject anything that remotely feels like an ad. That’s why user-generated content, informal memes, and product reviews are more popular - and more important - than ever before. People don’t want to be sold to anymore. They want high-quality, authentic, relevant, personalized information and products coming from people just like them.

But again, even if you have all this, it’s impossible to make an impact if you’re playing it safe.


Every marketer worth their salt in 2019 knows that people want authenticity and personalization, and they’re tailoring their advertising efforts accordingly.

That’s why, when it comes to advertising, it really is no risk, no reward. You have to be provocative if you want to create the most effective advertising.

Edgy Ads That Worked

The proof is really in the pudding here. Many brands have made some amazing risk-taking decisions - and they’ve gotten insane results from their efforts:

  • Nike took a huge risk with their 2018 “Just Do It” ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. Audiences lost their shit and tons of people boycotted the brand - but, ultimately, the company reported “record engagement” after it came out and their stock rose 5%, or 6 BILLION DOLLARS.
  • UN Women also pushed the envelope when they launched “The Autocomplete Truth,” an ad that showed the autocomplete search options that popped up when “women shouldn’t” and similar phrases were typed into Google. The ad raised awareness about gender bias and sexism today, and it was named the most shared ad of 2013.
  • Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” ad paired people together and had them build a bar and stools. When they were done, it was revealed that they were on polar opposites of the political spectrum, and they were asked if they would discuss their differences over a beer. The campaign went viral in all the right ways and attracted over 40 million views online.

Talk about success.

How To Get Provocative Advertising Right

Ok. We’ve made our point. So how do you push the envelope in the right way? At Gush, we follow a simple process - and you can do it too.

1. Establish Cultural Relevance

We start by seeing what blogs and brands are already creating or commenting on in your industry (a.k.a establishing cultural relevance). This is where authenticity and relevance come into play - and, provocative or not, you need to be relevant to people’s lives if you want to get their attention. A brand in the beauty industry, for example, can play off a timeless - or controversial - figure wearing their brand. Melania Trump, for example? Or Jennifer Lopez? Alternatively, they could touch on recent legislation in animal testing and clean beauty.

2. Be Timely

Then, we quickly create our own content to take advantage of this fleeting cultural moment (a.k.a we make sure it’s timely). Using the same example, you can’t talk about a celebrity that wore the brand six months ago. Nobody cares anymore.

3. Ensure Authenticity

This has to be done in a way that makes sense for your brand and your voice (there’s the authenticity). Otherwise, you end up like Pepsi and Dove - yikes!

4. Be Provocative

Lastly, you have to create something that beats out the memes, videos, and tweets to catch people’s attention, hold it, and leave them with a positive impression of your brand (and that’s the provocation). It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure, but you can do this on your own. Just tap into your own humanity and your sense of humor - and check your PC hat at the door.

We’ll Give You Your Money Back If It Fails

We know how to get this right. If you want our help creating provocative ads that work, we’re happy to help.

We’ll start by making sure that it’s a fit upfront. We make sure that you understand our philosophy and agree with our approaches. If we give it a try and you’re ultimately no happy, we’ll give you 100% of your money back. You just have to give us our work back.

That’s how confident we are that this will work.

Don’t believe us? Test it. What do you have to lose?

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