Provocative vs. Inflammatory: Getting Attention for the Right Reasons

provocative gesture

While it is hardly a new question which business has to seek to answer, how to capture attention only becomes a bigger and more critical challenge as more and more content is constantly vying for the focus of every potential customer. It’s been written about in the content marketing world at length in recent months, and one of the most common responses has been “create more interesting content”, which I wholeheartedly agree with. That does, however, bring up one important distinction that I feel like people begin to butt up against when trying to make their content more “interesting.” When is something provocative (and by extension then interesting and worth discussing), and when is something just inflammatory?

At first glance this seems like the type of distinction that may depend largely on taste and the intended audience, and to an extent that is certainly true. Understanding who you’re talking to is always critical, and the higher the emotional and intellectual stakes, the truer that becomes. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few, simple ways to check whether your content (no matter the kind of content) is more interesting and provocative or inflammatory and potentially offensive.

The difference is in the intent

Something that is provocative is intended to be thought provoking. Same root word even, so it’s obvious, right? The goal is to get people to think about something and discuss it, perhaps change their mindsets even. Something that is inflammatory is intended to “inflame.” Again, root word, I know it’s obvious. Something that is inflammatory is literally just trying to get a reaction, no matter how cheap. Of course, provocative can sometimes be perceived as inflammatory by some people, sometimes simply out of defensiveness if their deeply held beliefs are being called into question, but that’s why the focus here is on the intent. If you’re not certain which side of this line your content is falling on, ask yourself what your expected and hoped for reactions to the piece are. If you find yourself thinking about things like discussions and changed perceptions, you’re probably doing just fine. If you find yourself thinking about getting lots of attention (without thinking through whether it’s good or bad attention), it might be time for some edits.

Nuance vs. simplification

Inflammatory statements, regardless of specific subject matter, frequently simplify or condense a situation to be able to draw some kind of broad, somewhat extreme conclusion. Provocative statements employ nuance and should be able to tease out layers of meaning and allow for discussion and interpretation. If you find your content making statements that gloss over details of a situation for the sake of a headline (or a punchline), you may be heading into inflammatory territory. This isn’t to say that every piece of content has to deal with every specific detail of every related subject. If that was true I’d never be able to stop writing and every piece would be 40,000 words long. But be sure to acknowledge where there are details being smoothed over for the sake of brevity or clarity, and avoid making universally declarative statements, especially potentially controversial ones, if you know that there are things you didn’t have the time or space to consider.

Thoughtful discussion vs. pure emotion

Like with the first tip, this is another situation where simply thinking through what you expect and want the reaction to your content to be can help. Do you want discussion or debate? Are you prepared for what that might entail? Or are you hoping for some big, exclamation point laden emotional reaction and for that to be the end of it? Being inflammatory doesn’t add to a conversation or discussion because all it does is get people to have some visceral, emotional reaction that will then dissipate. Being provocative should start, or at least continue, some kind of thoughtful discourse. And bear in mind, a thoughtful, lively discussion doesn’t have to be centered around some deep, meaningful, or excessively academic topic, so don’t assume that doesn’t apply to a particular business simply because their products or services are more “fun” or less “deep” than that. Just look at the debate that sprung up as a result of Coke’s multi-lingual “America the Beautiful” commercial at the Super Bowl!

Which direction are you punching

If your content is “going after” anyone, the direction that that targeting takes is critical. In comedy, they talk about the idea of not “punching down”, meaning not making jokes at the expense of people who are less privileged or less powerful than you are, and the same holds true here. Don’t go after the “easy” targets of the under-represented or less privileged, stick with the ones at the top who can take it, even if you’re just talking about a rival business. Going on the attack towards a new, upstart company that may be going after your market share, if you’re the larger and more established company, will frequently be perceived as a bullying move, even if it’s not personally offensive to any potential customers enough to be traditionally labeled as inflammatory. When in doubt, remember that Inflammatory punches down, and provocative punches up.

Not about high-brow and low-brow

There’s no reason to assume that provocative has to mean high-brow and inflammatory has to mean low-brow. If you look around the internet, there are plenty of “think pieces” that are fundamentally just inflammatory clickbait regardless of how they’re dressed up, and I’ve seen hand drawn adorably child-like comics that made provocative, intelligent points. Lots of satire, including the immensely popular Colbert Report and it’s predecessor The Daily Show, is on the surface very casual and even silly, but it’s provocative in that it asks questions that make us think. Don’t assume you can’t be provocative just because an intellectual discussion over a glass of port by the fire doesn’t seem right for your brand.

If you remember nothing else, remember that you can be attention-grabbing and interesting and provocative without being inflammatory and risking making a negative impression for the sake of a short term high. When in doubt, check back on these tips and go forth and make people think! And while you’re at it, share with us in the comments the last time a piece of content truly made you think.

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