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Provocative Advertising: 5 Important Tips For Marketers

Anything edgy sells, and companies that market to teens know it. From Victoria’s Secret to Science World, more and more companies continue to produce provocative ads in the hopes of catching the attention of today’s teen.

Releasing a daring ad, however, requires tact and careful planning. What seems edgy or sexy to you might seem desperate and distasteful to the teens you’re trying to reach or, even worse, their parents. Here are five tips you should consider when employing advertising that entices and provokes the audience. 

1. Go beyond demographics 

While young adults tend to be more amenable to suggestive ads than are older audiences, marketers should go beyond demographics and also consider psychographics. A growing body of research shows that sweeping assumptions about teens are imprecise at best. Relying on age, gender and other demographic info alone doesn’t give you a complete picture. Marketers should work on knowing the core values of their target audience and on learning about the media they consume.

2.Evaluate your category.

Family-oriented categories, even those trying to reach teens specifically, need to take a safer route. These are in direct contrast to a category like fashion, where marketers can push the boundaries more. 

That being said, some organizations in more conservative verticals have had success using provocative ads. For instance, an ad campaign in Chicago used images of shirtless “pregnant” teenage boys. The controversial PSA targeted teen pregnancy and was modeled from a similar successful campaign in Milwaukee. A bold campaign like this may not work for your company, but it illustrates that there are always exceptions to rules. Shock tactics could work if their core message is based on values deeply held by the teens you want to reach. 

3. Assess your own brand 

Marketers need to consider what they’ve done in the past to see if provoking ads make sense. If you’ve developed a conservative brand, making a U-turn will confuse your audience. 

CW’s “OMFG” campaign for “Gossip Girl” is a good example. The network was able to get away with a campaign that bold because they’ve developed a provocative reputation. The same campaign, however, is unlikely to succeed on more conservative networks. 

Remember that customer perception, not your advertising messages, defines your brand. Talk to your teen customers and listen to the voice of the market to get a better picture of where your brand stands compared to your competition. 

4. Consider your market share

Brands that chase market leaders have more leeway. That’s why companies such as Carl’s Jr. are more prone to featuring celebrities like Paris Hilton in their ads

Some established brands are flipping the notion of “provocative” on its head, however. McDonald’s Restaurants’ “Our Food, Your Questions,” for instance, invited customers to send in their questions about its brand and its food, answering all inquiries regardless of how ridiculous they seem. Instead of buying TV spots, the fast-food chain posted video and article responses to a dedicated site. While not specifically for teens, the campaign shows that the company understands that transparency is the price of entry for engaging teens and post-Millennials

5.Adjust your approach based on your theme

Some kinds of provocation are riskier than others. That’s why teen brands are less likely poke fun at race, although it’s not unusual to see suggestive ads from companies such as Axe. 

Teens are growing up with a majority-minority demographic. Their stance on many topics varies from that of their parents. It’s important for brands to get close to the customer voice and to talk to their community of teen customers to understand how these societal changes can impact their messaging.

Regardless of your theme, rigorous ad testing will help ensure that your ads are effective. If you have a very controversial ad like Marc Jacobs’ “Oh, Lola!” campaign featuring Dakota Fanning, there is always some risk that people will remember your ad but not your product or your brand.

Being bold in the age of the empowered customer means displaying confidence in your brand, your products and in your customers. In the end, you may not need to resort to shock advertising to demonstrate confidence—but if your brand chooses that route, you’d better make sure you understand your teen customers well.

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