Posts Tagged ‘headlines

31
Jan
15

Writing the Big Bold Blah

No matter what branch of advertising a creative settles into, at various times the call will go out for a “big campaign theme.”

Always ready to oblige! For what creative doesn’t relish a real challenge, as opposed, say, to the unending iterative stream of “corrections” they receive from clients who A.) have no idea what they want and B.) have no idea what advertising can and cannot achieve.

Trouble is, in most instances, the basic ingredients for baking up that big theme are missing. That is, the creative team is faced with a brand or product line that:

• Has no unique attributes
• Delivers only highly qualified benefits
• Is heavily burdened by legal or regulatory requirements

And yet, in the back of most brand managers’ minds is the model of the iconic, freewheeling, fun-loving campaigns of the early 1960s. Not that any of them has the courage to get behind a message like “We’re No. 2, so we have to try harder.” Even something as generic as “Frosted Flakes are Grrreat” is way too audacious for our litigious times. And it’s easy to see why. Use a line like that and you’d actually be asserting that your brand consistently delivered a measurable result.

Naturally, a classic line like “Come up. Come all the way up to Kool,” would evoke such a flurry of air quotes, you’d have half the advertising strategists in the country in the ER with advanced carpal tunnel syndrome within five minutes of proposing it.

Of course, the real secret behind the success of the classic campaigns that a typical client likes to shame us with, is that they had nothing to do with taglines, photographic styles or celebrity endorsements. On the contrary, they succeeded because the brand delivered something of value—directly, effortlessly and with none of those niggling qualifications that are the buzz-kill of today’s marketing.

Real reasons to believe
More to the point, they got people to believe, simply because their products “kept it real” as we say now, in an era when so little is what it’s cut out to be. The Avis people, initially, not only claimed to try harder, they actually brought a new level of service to car-rental—that is, until the bean-counting revolution of the 80s ensured the only thing an American corporation would ever deliver was money to its shareholders.

Customer value? Quality? They survive only as mechanical claims or, just as bad, as the exclusive purview of brands charging outrageously inflated prices for services that used to be taken for granted.
Now to get the kind of service everyone used to get from the travel industry, for example, you have to be a Super Black Onyx Titanium Elite Plus Member with annual billings in the seven figures. Everyone else gets wait-listed for the cattle car.

And it’s within this environment of decidedly lowered expectations that a creative team is routinely asked to conceive a Big Idea campaign that will open the flood gates and storm the barricades. Sometimes they even succeed—and sometimes, with unexpected consequences.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the day a brand manager for a major national brand told me he couldn’t use the campaign idea we’d come up with because it would be too successful and they wouldn’t be able to handle the call volume.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Auto-mat marketing
The fact that we were asked to go back and deliver something less effective is beside the point, as poignantly absurd as it sounds. For my purposes, what it illustrates is the futility of so much best-practice saber-rattling, including that infinite series of top ten lists purporting to guarantee success.

For in a marketing/advertising environment governed by ignorance, anxiety and petty whims, why should anyone attempt to raise the bar, move the needle, push the envelope or use any other quaint metaphor for creative achievement? My message to clients? If you want a great campaign, become a great company. Then we’ll have something to say that grows naturally out of real brand attributes. If not, there’s a wealth of automated headline-generating software available online for a reasonable fee.

You just plug in your brand attributes and in a few moments, your campaign theme is ready. No squelchy conference call phones, no pesky creative presentations, and no perky account people asking about your personal life. Best of all, you’ll have the campaign you deserve, which is all any brand can ask for.

20
Sep
14

Oh, Those Poppy, Snappy, Smart-mouthed, Rim-shot Headlines

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 of the headline. 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?

Formula 10.
And yet it takes very little effort to find advertising and marketing pundits ready to assert they know the Top Ten Ways to grab attention with punchy headlines.

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.

Formula zero.
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.




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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