Those are the words of legendary ad man, David Ogilvy, who added: "It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money." Ogilvy’s words were true when he wrote them in the 1960s and even more relevant today. The New York Times recently ran an article about the egregious misspellings and grammatical errors found on billboards, road signs and storefronts in the city’s five boroughs. Some of the examples were simultaneously hilarious and nauseating. And, as an avid reader of all things social media related, I’ve come across a staggering number of headlines that either offended my grammatical sensibilities or completely befuddled me.
The slow and painful demise of the well-written headline has many causes: there’s the overall dumbing down of society, the rise of the 140-character universe and just plain, old laziness. I think it’s a dead heat for worst offender, though: there’s the award-crazed advertising copywriter who produces headlines intended to stop a reader in her tracks but instead befuddles the bejesus out of anyone with half a brain. Then, there’s the average public relations executive who confuses press release writing with brochure copy. So, instead of a brief, pithy headline that draws a reader in, one is instead bombarded with superlatives, hyperbole and 25-word-long monstrosities. This seems to be especially true for new product releases which, if one were to believe the headline, will literally save the planet.
I’ve been reading a phenomenal book called ‘Your Attention Please.’ It was written in 2006 by Paul B. Brown and Alison Davis. It’s one of the best ‘how-to’ guides I’ve read for writing brief, effective copy in an information overload world. The authors suggest no headline should see the light of day unless it addresses the most important question of all, “What’s in it for me?” I couldn’t possibly improve upon that definition or Mr. Ogilvy’s emphasis on the importance of a headline.
The New York Post and Daily News notwithstanding, the art of headline writing is receding faster than the polar ice caps. It’s incumbent upon leaders in the public relations, digital and advertising worlds to do something about it now. Otherwise, smart and strategic clients will wake up one day, realize their print ads, digital banners and press releases aren’t generating awareness, credibility or, most important of all, qualified sales leads. So, the next time you’re crafting a product announcement for a first-of-its-kind, fastest, smallest and lightest ever widget created by man, ask yourself the question, “What’s in it for me?” think first about the end user of the product or service. Then think about yourself. Save on the words and you just might save an account (and your job).