Provocative Content: How Far Is Too Far?

The goal of your content is to capture attention and make readers think. Sometimes, you might strive to achieve this by producing provocative content. However, there is a line between shock value and outright disgust that you should be careful not to cross.

Something that is provocative is deliberately crafted to evoke a strong reaction—whether that reaction is shock, anger, annoyance, or even arousal. Sometimes, producing provocative content pays off for a company. For example, the clothing company Patagonia once published an ad that discouraged viewers from buying their clothes; the ad was in line with Patagonia’s goal to support the environment. They wanted to make consumers stop and think before they went out and bought new clothes. The goal was to earn consumer trust.

However, some companies fall on their faces when their content goes too far. For example, Sprite issued some ads in Ireland in March 2016 that offended many because of their sexist overtones. With slogans like, “She’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo,” the campaign produced some serious backlash for the Coca-Cola company.

How can you find a balance between provocative and appropriate?

Consider Your Audience

Image via Flickr by resilientjake

When you’re creating content, the main factor you need to consider is your target audience. Younger people with mainstream tastes are more likely to tolerate sexually-charged content than older generations. Parents are less likely to put up with provocative content because they went to protect their children from overexposure to shocking subject matter.

Geography is also something to take into account. If your business operates in an area where a lot of people profess to be religious, you’re likely to have less success with content that contains a lot of sexual references.

Think about the issues that most affect your target audience. For example, if your business is in an area that has experienced interracial violence, content that has even remotely racist tones — even if the content is meant to be funny — may not go over well. Along the same lines, you probably wouldn’t want to take a risk by producing content that portrays LGBTQ lifestyles in an overly negative light.

Consider Relevance

Your attempts to shock will stick out like a sore thumb if your shock devices don’t relate to your business at all. For example, fashion is a natural place for provocative images because some fashions are naturally provocative. However, if you’re an IT firm or a real estate company, you’re less likely to have success with content that centers on sex.

Of course, sex isn’t the only thing you can use to shock. There are several types of content that might make readers blink and wonder if they saw what they just thought they saw. Sometimes, you can use shock value to convey a positive message. For example, the Patagonia ad did a good job of communicating the company’s commitment to the environment. Similarly, if you’re promoting your business’s involvement in a charity that seeks to alleviate homelessness or domestic violence, images or graphic stories about these social issues may be exactly what you need to move your audience to action.

Don’t put shocking words or images into your content unless you have a point; shocking your audience simply for the sake of shocking them will distract from your overall message and could even land you in hot water. Always make sure your content offers something of value, even if the content is shocking or provocative.

Consider Your Brand Identity

What are the core values that drive your business? You might have already put a lot of time and effort into letting consumers know your stance on certain topics. Will publishing provocative content put your brand identity in jeopardy? For example, you might have already crafted an image of conservative professionalism for yourself. You might have been careful to tread within the boundaries of political correctness. One piece of content that doesn’t mesh with your brand identity could lead to upheaval.

If your business already has a reputation as being edgy, shocking content is unlikely to cause as much chaos as it would for a company with a more low-key approach to hot-button issues.

Consider Timing

In 2015, an episode of the TV show “Supergirl” was moved to another week because the episode featured terrorist attacks. The episode was rescheduled because of terror attacks in Paris that occurred that week. CBS showed sensitivity for the victims of the terror attacks and chose not to use terrorism as a means of entertaining viewers during that difficult time.

You can choose to follow this example by not publishing shocking content that will hit too close to home during times of political or social upheaval.

What If You Cross the Line?

Despite your careful consideration of the consequences of a piece of content, you might find that your efforts to use shock value to draw and engage an audience backfire. If you’re unhappy with the consequences when you accidentally go too far, what can you do?

  • Apologize. You might be surprised by what offends people. Instead of making excuses or telling your audience to “take a joke” or “get a thicker skin,” humbly apologize for the offense.
  • Engage. Don’t ignore it if you get a lot of negative comments on your content. You can offer personal apologies to people if necessary.
  • Remove the offensive content. Adjusting the content might be as simple as tweaking some wording or removing an image. In other cases, you might have to rework an entire campaign.
  • Create Google Alerts for your company. This will help you keep an eye on the overall response to your content across cyberspace.

Everyone wants to go viral. Publishing provocative content might just help you achieve that goal, but it might also ruin your reputation, rob you of customers, and force you to issue copious apologies. Before you publish anything that might raise eyebrows, consider your audience, the relevance of the shocking material, your brand identity, and your timing. When you tread cautiously, your content strategy is more likely to have success.

About the author

Joy Nelson

Joy Nelson is a professional freelance writer who lives in the Seattle area. Her hobbies include traveling and saving money.