I've always loved advertising headlines. Long before I embarked on a copywriting career, I'd amuse myself by creating new versions of lines I saw in magazines or tube trains. Even as a kid, my mum (an English teacher) would point out headlines she thought particularly witty or smart; I'd mentally collect them too, on my journey to school and share them with her on my return.
Of course, these days, my interest in headlines is coloured by the fact I've been writing them for twenty years. Indeed, sometimes it's hard to see them in the same light as a non-copywriter, as I tend to dissect them, try to imagine the creative process and the brief, and assess their impact.
So I thought it would be an interesting exercise to document that thought process in this column.
I've chosen an ad fairly randomly. Just a print execution that struck me while reading The Guardian's Weekend magazine in the bath. The ad is for Virgin Active Health Clubs and, although there's some styling from an art director, it's largely a piece led by its headline.
'Don't Just Live. Live Happily Ever Active.'
That's the headline, and I'm pretty sure it caught my attention because I quite liked it, while simultaneously finding it flawed. Of course, it's very easy for one copywriter to criticise the work of another. I haven't seen the brief, nor do I have any awareness of the ad's journey, before it arrived at the press-ready stage. In fact, other than knowing the work is through Karmarama, I have no background. This is all just instinct.
I suppose my principal observation would be the word count. To me, it's too long. To be precise, it's too long by these three words: 'Don't Just Live.' The more I read the line, the more superfluous the opening phrase becomes. 'Live Happily Ever Active' has a strong impulsion to it, forming a call to action in its own right. The reader expects the last word to be 'after', so when 'active' takes its place it pushes the brand's key word into the memory. 'Don't Just Live ...' dilutes the power of the line and reduces the value of the pay-off.
There's also a problem with the repeat of the word 'live'. The line is only seven words long, and two of them are the same. Worse still, they are consecutive. I know rules are there to be broken, but in this case, the rebellion actually weakens the ad.
As this is part of a much larger campaign, centred on the line, these are details that matter.
So, reducing the headline to 'Live Happily Ever Active' would improve things considerably. However, I wonder whether it shouldn't remain a branding strapline. This is obviously a strategic advertisement - published to raise brand awareness rather than tactically promoting an offer or membership deal; and yet it doesn't really say anything any competitor wouldn't or couldn't say. Ultimately, the line doesn't give me a reason to join a Virgin Health Club over another gym.
That is not to say I don't think the ad works. In many ways it does. The typography is pleasingly retro and hip, and the layout nicely strikes the eye. After all, it drew me in - and I am the last person to find a 'health club' attractive. No, I'm actually recording these comments in order to demonstrate the sort of games a copywriters play in their heads, when perusing advertisements. By the time we've finished, every ad is re-written to our liking.
Headlines are very subjective things - and, while I may have chosen to work this example quite differently, the actual author may well have felt they had crafted the line to their perfect satisfaction.
That's the thing with copywriters, we're never off-duty.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant