Shock Value: How Provocative Direct Mail Can (and Does) Work


Shock-Value-How-Provocative-Direct-Mail-Can-Work-1.jpgOver the years, several major marketing campaigns have been pulled because they were just too shocking, too controversial and too risqué. From Benetton ads in the 1980s to controversial campaigns about child abuse to Pony’s “Black Jesus” ad from 2004, countless ads have been deemed too controversial for mainstream media. PETA, in fact, has built a multimillion-dollar organization on ads that are made to shock.

Of course, they were also memorable, and there’s nothing controversial about great publicity!

However, while you can borrow from some of the world’s most risqué and talked-about ad campaigns for your direct mail campaign, you might want to tone it down, just a little. Here’s how you can make shock value work for your direct mail marketing strategy:

  • Make an outrageous claim in your headline. Research shows that headlines are responsible for 73 percent of all direct mail success, so why not make yours something that really stands out from the crowd? An example of a headline with shock value would be “We’re not the best car dealership in the USA,” followed by a subhead that says “But we’re the best in Florida.” Headlines with shock value are often contrary to what you would expect, designed to make the reader do a double take.
  • Use provocative images. If social media marketing has taught people anything, it’s the value of sharing thought-provoking or shocking images. While your flyer might not be able to “go viral,” you can certainly use a sensational image to get attention. Charities often use this to great effect, but there are many ways you can adapt this to any industry.
  • Limit the graphics and text. Shock value works best when there’s limited information to focus on. One image and a few words is all you need to get people interested. Add a link and perhaps some information on the back of your flyer, and you should pique your readers’ interest.
  • Consider your market carefully. Remember that shocking is in the eye of the beholder, and what might be absolutely acceptable to some could be completely tasteless to others. Don’t overdo it either. You want to generate interest, not disgust, and while the old saying is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, you could still be hurt by outrage.
  • Tie your direct mail campaign to social media. Since shock value is such a big factor in social media marketing, make sure that you marry your direct mail efforts with a series of posts across your social media platforms. If you can get your images and message to “go viral” online, you’ll only reinforce the impact of your printed mail pieces.

The reason shock tactics work so well in marketing and in direct mail is that they are different. We’re all so used to seeing the same things when we open the mailbox that when we see something completely different and out there, we’re intrigued. Get it right, and this particular marketing tactic can spread interest like wildfire and get people talking.  When it comes to marketing, there’s no greater goal than starting a conversation!

Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing