Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tuesday Tip No. 37 - How To Write Headlines

I've already said that I much prefer print ads without headlines.

Nevertheless, it's worth getting good at writing them. Why? Because often you will fail to crack the brief visually. Happens to me a lot.

Or sometimes, due to lack of time, lack of money, yada yada, you may 'have' to use a stock-shot or product shot with a line.

So let's start with the basics.

How long should a headline be?

I’m not trying to lay down ironclad rules, and I certainly haven’t got any neuro-scientific evidence to back it up, but it does seem to me that there’s a certain length of sentence that’s appropriate for the kind of thoughts we typically try to get across in an advertisement. A length that can be inhaled in one breath by the reader. And that length is roughly 8 to 14 words.

If a thought needs a lot more than 14 words to communicate, it’s too complicated for an advertisement. And if it can be said in less than 8 words, it normally isn’t saying enough.

(Of course, words like ‘disintermediation’ or ‘supercollider’ might falsify the count, as maybe would lots of teeny words)

Here’s a great old campaign for Porsche by Fallon McElligott.

Nine words. [Sorry about the appalling quality of these scans]


Eleven. I think of 11 as the magic number. I’m not sure why, but there just seems to be something particularly pleasing about 11-word headlines.

The best headlines don’t look like headlines

There’s a sure-fire way to get your headline ignored - make it look the headline of an advert.

No one actually wants to read adverts. So, it probably won’t get read. And it will be boring, and probably not win any awards either.

Making a headline look like something other than a headline is a very good arrow to have in your quiver.

In fact, many of the world’s best headline-writers are quite open about their secret weapon – a great art director.

With a really well art-directed headline, the idea and the execution are seamless. I like ideas where the headline is written in a place where type naturally occurs. Which means that your headline can be a photographed object - a visual element in its own right, which just happens to have type on it - rather than a boring old typeset headline.

So, think what your headline could be written on, that you could photograph as an object.

Or if there's no object you can put your type on, is there some object you can make your type out of, to make it more visually interesting? If it’s an ad for baked beans, why not make your headline out of beans?


Some Creatives will tell you that puns are bad and you should never use them.

I don’t agree with that, though I understand why they say it.

They say it because there is a finite pool of words that have a dual meaning. Hence, most are well-known and have been used in adverts before. And just as any joke becomes less funny the more times you hear it, so do puns.*

However, if you can come up with a play on words that feels totally original, I see no reason why it can’t make a good advert.

Here’s a great example for Timberland, by Leagas Delaney.

It was written by Tim Delaney himself. And if puns are acceptable to Tim Delaney, there’s no reason for you to turn your nose up.

Indeed, year after year, you will find ads in the awards books that are based on wordplay.

*Just as you could make an exception for jokes that are “so bad they’re good”, you might say the same of some puns. Like the old headline for the airport Hilton that read “Out of the flying plane, into the foyer.”

Punchline comes at the end

The construction of a headline causes some Creatives endless heart-ache. It needn’t. The principle is very simple: you put the punchline at the end.

Here’s an example:

Would this witty headline (and it’s a pun, incidentally – so take note, anti-pun people) have been as effective if it read: “My bitches and I love Irn-Bru”?

Not quite.

‘Bitches’ is the punchline so it goes at the end… just like the punchline of any joke.

For serious headlines, exactly the same principle applies. The key word or phrase goes at the end.

Tip No.36 - How To Do Direct
Tip No.35 - How To Do Radio
Tip No.34 - How To Do Press
Tip No.33 - How To Do TV
Tip No.32 - How To Do Digital
Tip No.31 - How To Do Posters
Tip No.30 - Look At Weird Shit
Tip No.29 - Presenting To The Client
Tip No.28 - Presenting To The Team
Tip No.27 - Presenting To The Creative Director
Tip No.26 - How To Deal With Rejection
Tip No.25 - Look Creative
Tip No.24 - Don't Be Afraid To Ask
Tip No.23 - Your Idea Has To Be 120%
Tip No.22 - Read Iain's Tips
Tip No.21 - Don't Behave
Tip No.20 - How To Discuss Ideas
Tip No.19 - Read Hugh's Tips
Tip No.18 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job
Tip No.17 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7)
Tip No.16 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together
Tip No. 15 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ
Tip No. 14 - Make Friends With Traffic
Tip No. 13 - Get Reference
Tip No. 12 - Don't Stop Too Soon
Tip No.11 - Be Very
Tip No.10 - Breaking Up
Tip No.9 - Working Well With Your Partner
Tip No.8 - Finding The Right Partner
Tip No.7 - How To Approach Agencies
Tip No.6 - Never-Seen-Before Footage
Tip No.5 - Dicketts' Finger
Tip No.4 - Two Blokes In The Pub
Tip No.3 - Play Family Fortunes
Tip No.2 - Should You Take A Bad Job?
Tip No.1 - Don't Overpolish


Anonymous said...






Anonymous said...

isn't this a bit like saying:

Tip 39 - How to manufacture an excellent buggy whip. In 1930.

just sayin'.

Charles Edward Frith said...

An excellent post. Anyone who loves advertising would enjoy this.

Anonymous said...

my favorite:

"my shout" he whispered.

Hickesy said...

Anon 2.28am - Give it break, get some sleep. Are you Mr Burns?

Lunar BBDO said...

David Abbott said that a pun is permissible if it hasn't been done before.

Best one ever?
Next to a picture of some onions and a shallot for Sainsbury's, Richard Foster wrote the headline: 'Sainsbury's have 8 different kinds of onion. And that shallot.'

For what it's also worth, I have found that the reappropriation of cliches can be very powerful because it can force the reader to think harder as they have to realign the contents of their brain.

'What exactly is the benefit of the doubt?' (the Economist).

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:28 – words are obsolete?


Thanks Scamp. Nice to see you championing words, for a change.

Anonymous said...


it's the worldwide web. you're ahead of my time. not saying words are obsolete, but the print medium, maybe. as a cultural force.

Anonymous said...

that's right, that's why you see all those empty magazine and newspaper shelves at borders, pfff...

Anonymous said...

yeah, i based my view entirely on my own feelings. newspaper readership is plummeting. little thing called the internet is diverting attention away from traditional media. part of an overall trend. i read about it online. you should check it out. ffffp!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:58–
There's loads of words on the internet. Haven't you noticed?

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain the Timberland one?

Anonymous said...

I thought rules of advertising went out with David Ogilvy? Scamp is the new Ogilvy

Scamp said...

Woo-hoo! Party at my castle. tonight

Anonymous said...


i thought it was mind-numbingly obvious that i was talking at the medium of print vs. the internet. not words. i think words are pretty safe. i'm using them right now!

]-[appy Thought said...

Can we make a Scamp award for 2008? If anyone can make an ad with the word "Supercollider" in it they win a £15 Boots voucher or something?

Anonymous said...

Now is the winter of our discount tents.

classic stuff.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11.34

I agree that the internet is increasingly where it's at, and maybe press advertising is a bit less important these days. But this post is about writing headlines. And they are everywhere. Scamp's examples are all press, but it's just as relevant for online display, posters and Google ads.

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

Great stuff.
I'm a big fan of well written words, especially when they explain or emphasize the art direction.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to realise that the old 'headline as part of the visual' trick is a much an ad cliche as 'visual, headline, copy'. That doesn't mean it's definitely bad - it just means that as a technique, it ain't going to rescue a lacklustre headline.
Surely the first rule of headline writing has to be that it be interesting to the reader. That doesn't mean every reader - it only has to interest the people the ad's aimed at. In specialist print, for example, headlines can be long and complicated, as long as they're interesting - for example that they contain a new bit of info, or new take on something, or new way to look at something.
The bottom line is that if an ad is interesting, it will get read - that doesn't mean just visually interesting, but just interesting in a human way.
I think in our 'modern' visual world, the benefit of good writing is massively underrated (I speak as an Art Director) and this has in turn led to the standard of writing, and the thought put into it, going down a lot. A big part of the problem is that the quality of the thinking before the actual writing is not good enough - the "working out what to say?" bit - before finding a 'way' to write it.

Fair play, I think your tips are a great resource for people trying to get into, or better at this ad lark.

(Anonymous - your reasoning is flawed. If you think the medium of print is dead you don't get out of the office enough - have a look around at what your fellow humans are up to. That kind of thinking went out of date a couple of years ago.)

Anonymous said...

>>>>Anonymous - your reasoning is flawed. If you think the medium of print is dead you don't get out of the office enough - have a look around at what your fellow humans are up to. That kind of thinking went out of date a couple of years ago. >>>>>>

i never said the medium of print is dead. i said its rapidly losing it's clout as a cultural force because it's no longer the focal point of people's lives as it once was. the internet is winning. something has to lose. turns out it's newspapers and tv that are losing. not a subjective opinion. fact.

i read two daily papers myself and tons of mags. but i'm hardly representative of the average person. i'm in advertising you see.

Anonymous said...

you are a "funny bugger" having played funny buggers with my reasoning-good on you. Much appreciate your insights

A collection of interesting said...

Enjoyed reading this one. Really some good tips! Thanks.

Freelance copywriter said...

To err is human. To er, um, ah is unacceptable. The Economist.