Despite the myriad changes in the advertising world—and the world in general—since the glory days of the early 60s, many creatives still cling to a heroic model headlines. They yearn for a slam-bam, one-shot, no-nonsense, short-and-sweet, straight-and-to-the-point summation of brand value that’s also provocative, a tad naughty and—of course—cast in the form of a pun.
Now, I have no arbitrary bias against traditional headlines. If a headline works, no one should care what ideo-theoretico-politico bandwagon it jumps on. But to assert that one and only one type of headline is essential to engage your audience is the purest form of nonsense I know.
Just pick your head up from the One Show annual and look around. You’re liable to notice that, aside from a very few universal truths, everybody’s not the same. Even if you could prove that snappy, humorous headlines were the most effective, you’d face a major hurdle: There’s no universal consensus on what’s funny.
It’s hard enough, as many a broadcast TV executive knows, to tap a vein of humor that resonates as well in Camden, NJ as it does in Carmel, CA. Trying to get a rise out of a global audience? Forgetaboutit.
That’s because humor is an outgrowth of a worldview. The ethnic jokes that once dominated stand-up routines in the last century succeeded solely on the basis a shared perspective: Anyone outside the mainstream was considered inherently funny.
Nowadays, even the concept of Mainstream itself has outlived its shelf life as more people recognize how vulnerable the Big Tent is to the winds of change. In light of that, can you seriously assert that only one headline style works?
As I see it, the place to start in crafting headlines is the mindset of consumers. Yet, despite today’s insistent rhetoric about “audience engagement,” a copywriter often finds his or her real target is an ideologically-crazed creative director or a box-checking brand manager, whose only business goal is the attainment of plausible deniability.
“Hey, I followed best practice,” says the arrogant fool. “If it didn’t work, you must have targeted the wrong list or screwed up the body copy. But let’s have a breakdown session and figure out where you went wrong so you’ll know for next time.”
And yet, to reach an audience, you must ignore the static and dig out a nugget of truth from your own observations or from the pale wisps of insight that waft in from market research. Brace yourself—you might need to summon the courage to write a headline in plain language, simply because your audience perceives the topic in plain terms.
Needless to say, another factor that ought to enter into the equation is the realization that times change. The “attitude” humor of the 70s and 80s has long since entered its geriatric phase. If Louis CK can still pull it off, it’s only because he tempers his jibes with a ring of self-deprecating awareness.
In a related category, in the sense that they’re also the product of mechanical thinking, are headlines cut to fit a familiar template. You know them when you see them:
• Your [life process] is tough. Your [practical function] shouldn’t be
• The [first attribute]-est, [second-attribute]-est [service] just got [first attribute]-er & [second attribute]-er
• Looking for a [positive adjective] [positive noun] without all the [negative noun]?
• The-I-never-thought-[item] could [verb phrase] so good [same item]
• Why do 4-out-of-5 [practitioner or gender-specific role]s prefer [product or service]?
…and there are many more.
At issue is not templates themselves, rather that 4-out-of-5 creatives who use them have little regard for the specific people they’re trying to reach. As in, anyone over 40 who has heard these gambits often enough to mistrust them—or anyone under 40 who’s already over you before you can get to the punch line.
That’s because the only way to connect is to look your audience in the eye. Only then do you have a chance to send the most important message of all:
I feel your pain and I’m here to help you relieve it.
If you can do that with a touch of drama or a dash of humor, so be it. Mind you, “pain” can be anything from a medical necessity to the need for a status-enhancing smartphone upgrade. But know that when the metrics come in, success won’t be measured in chuckles or tears, but in how many people empathized with your message, trusted you because of it—and acted on the basis of that trust.