The Attention-Grabbing Power of the Provocative Headline


I have to admit… it caught my eye.  Not for any personal relevancy mind you, but because of the marketing beauty of it.  Three short, simple and provocative words that get instant attention.  From a marketing perspective, there’s a lot to learn from this short statement.

As a matter of fact, I immediately fired off an email to a buddy of mine and told him to add this to his email marketing swipe file for his business.  I also knew it was a good opportunity for a marketing lesson, so here goes.

Lesson #1: Sex (still) sells!

Sex (or in this case the lack thereof) or the illusion of something a bit naughty still sells. This should come as no surprise to us humans, yet for many reasons most marketers stay far away from this undeniably human need.  Of course it’s prevalent in the niches you would expect, such as the dating niche and a few others I’m sure you can think of.  And nobody is immune to walking by the magazine rack at your local store to see its power on magazine covers.  One of the first emotion-driven copywriting lessons I ever learned was to use the covers of magazines like Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan and the National Enquirer as a swipe file for ideas.

I am sure a number of people reading this would be uncomfortable using sex in their marketing, but before you completely dismiss the idea, is there some way you can tap into its power?   For example, I love what Joe Polish did with his Gary Halbert private recordings, when he created “Gary Halbert XXX.”

Gary Halbert XXX

As you can see the packaging and name conveys that this is something different and possibly a bit naughty.  The results?  A very successful product.

Another example was a real testimonial sent in by a CopyDoodles customer.  He sent an email that said… “CopyDoodles are better than sex (but maybe I’m doing something wrong)!”  Needless to say, his testimonial stood out and one I used whenever I wanted to laugh from an audience.

Lesson #2: Provocative statements/questions are powerful attention-grabbers

Top copywriters understand and use the power of provocative statements like a chef uses spices.  What can you say about your product or service that’s not plain-vanilla and provokes serious thought?

The knockout power of the provocative question or statement is undeniable and one of the best ever was a copywriter named Bill Jayme (pronounced jay-mee).  Bill was the mastermind behind many famous campaigns, but the one I like best was an envelope he designed for Psychology Today that posed the question…

“Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One At Home?”

Though the design is a bit dated by today’s standards, it’s still being used years later as a classic example of asking a provocative question to get attention.

Bill Jayme

If you’re a serious student of marketing, Google “Bill Jayme.”  There’s also a collection of Bill Jayme’s work available from my friends at (note: I don’t own this and am only including this non-affiliate link for those interested).

Lesson #3: Have your marketing radar always on

I’ve written about this many times in the past, but I constantly urge all business owners and marketers to have their marketing radar set to “always on.”

What do I mean by this?

Quite simply you should always be on the look-out for examples and ideas from others (that are constantly around you) that you can use for your business and marketing.  You should:

  • study all the direct mail that comes into your office
  • keep your eyes out for email subject lines that got your attention
  • keep a swipe file of advertisements, emails and mailings
  • always be on the look-out for smart ideas you can swipe and use in your marketing efforts

Many times these inspirational ideas come at odd times or places.  Recently I was in a Staples doing some shopping when I came across a neat little miniature book, called “iPad for Dummies – Mini Edition.”  I like the format so much, I spent the $1.00 asking price and immediately added it to my swipe file.  Just last week when we opened the new CopyDoodles Access Club, this idea became a reality with the CopyDoodles Pocket Guide book I published and include in every CopyDoodles New Member Welcome Kit.  You never know when your next powerful marketing idea may come from (which is the exact reason I created my SMART Ideas newsletter).

CopyDoodles book

I want to hear from you!

Share your comments on how you have used the power of provocative statements and questions in your marketing or if you have a good story about your marketing radar share it below!


  1. Michael on July 27, 2012 at 10:51 am

    What do you think of this headlines:

    Married Couples add an additional $100,000 to your retirement account in 1hour!

  2. Jeanne on July 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I recently sent an email to business owners swiping Frank Kern’s “Sleazy Magazine Headlines” .. It had one of my best open rates!

    I made the content relevant, precisely by showing them how to swipe magazine headlines for their marketing..

    *Nice to see we’re all on the same page:)

    Great read, thanks Mike.

  3. Mike Capuzzi on July 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Michael, not sure if this qualifies as a provocative headline. Maybe a bit hypey and hard to believe? Has it worked for you?

  4. Lawrence Bernstein on July 27, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Fortunately, you’re subject line does not hold true for me, Mike, since rediscovering the testosterone of youth.

    Indeed, your subject line is a stopper!

    Nice post.

  5. Dr. Carney on July 27, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Hey Mike,

    Got a little ahead of myself.

    Should have read:

    “Stop Gaining Weight And Lose Up To A Pound A Day.”
    The Five Simple Things You Can Do At Home
    To Lose 7 Pounds A Week, And Shape Your Body Back Into A CHISELED, CUT Fat Burning Machine.

  6. Victoria Eden on July 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Hey Mike,
    Great subject line for your email! I’m more inclined to delete than open any email but yours got my attention. Not only does sex sell, but at the mature age of (No! I’m not going to tell you my age!) I’m dating again. And I’ve found LOTS of really quality men who are available again after leaving sexless marriages. (Perhaps their wives should re-visit their vows?!) I was curious about how you would tie a “sexless marriage” to marketing. You did it expertly… no surprise. Great post!

  7. Denise on July 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I thought of the mini book for some of my work but couldn’t find a printer. Where idyou print your mini books?

  8. Steven on July 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    There are still many of us out here who would see a provocative headline and would turn the other way. Example, if I hadn’t seen Mike Capuzzi on the from address in my email I would have deleted the email without opening it and possibly even set up my email to auto purge any other incoming emails from that email address.

    Call me old fashion but I think sleazy or provocative headlines are a cheap trick and kind of lazy marketing. Maybe bordering on bate and switch if your content has nothing to do with the subject grabber.

    There are better ways to compel people.

  9. Mike Capuzzi on July 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Lawrence – I have no doubt! Your stuff is in the mail!

  10. Mike Capuzzi on July 27, 2012 at 1:53 pm


    Just about any printer should be able to do this for you. It’s a simple saddle-stiched booklet that is 4″ wide by 6″ tall. I used one of my two long-time printers to do this for me. Aztec Copies in Delaware ( I work with the Talleyville office (Mark Haley).

  11. Mike Capuzzi on July 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Steven, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. And if you have received my emails in the past, you know which way I tend to go (you should have heard my wife’s comments as she loaded the email into Infusionsoft). But your response is another good learning point. You are not your customer and we all have to be very, very careful of projecting our own beliefs, morals, etc. and thinking this is our our prospects and customers feel. In the case of this specific headline, for the population that is affected by it, a headline like this could be the key to a solution. Thanks for the note.

  12. Thad Winston on July 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Like a moth to the flame! Definitely drawn in by the sexless marriage! Great blog entry too. Thanks!! Hope all is well!!

  13. Alistair Gray on July 27, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Great one Mike. In a recent blog post “How to be controversial,Create Publicity and Sales!”( I give several examples of how to create headlines to get attention. These all relate to local Australian issues… examples
    ““Free Desserts for Married Gay Couples or those who want to be Married” or “Free Pizza for Boat People” (Illegal immigrants via boat is a very hot topic here at the moment.

  14. Mike Capuzzi on July 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Thad – LONG TIME, no talk! Hope all is well with you too!