by Magnus Shaw
For a jet propulsion lab brochure: "What we do isn't rocket science. Oh, hang on ...".
For Sainsbury's: "We say 'hello' to good buyers".
A recruitment ad for security guards: "Who says you can't have a successful career after the police? Look at Sting."
These are some of my favourite headlines. But they never ran. It happens. An unappreciative client or account manager, a change of brief - not every great headline makes it to the target audience. Happily, many of them do. So below, allow me to present a few of the very best.
All these headlines have one thing in common, a solid proposition. They have a firm grasp on the client's message and find a wonderful way to express it. This is a perfect example. 88.6FM understand their audience and how to attract them. It's a point of difference with a hint of rebelliousness and truculence. It's also very refreshing to see edgy work for a broadcaster, usually a surprisingly conservative industry.
Okay, maybe a bit rough on Phil, but I'm sure he didn't lose too much sleep over the ad, what with him being played to death on almost every other station.
Perhaps you saw this one coming. But for copywriters, the long running Economist work is something of a holy grail. An entire campaign built from nothing but headlines is a rarity. It's possible this campaign has now become so successfully iconic, the approach will be rarer still. Nevertheless, almost everyone in advertising has a favourite Economist line. This is mine.
It's a vintage VW ad that always has creative directors feeling faint with admiration. It's for The Beetle and has the headline 'Lemon'. You know the one. However, I'm quite a fan of the work which relaunched the VW camper van.
The headline is such a fantastically cheeky and amusing way to remind the audience of the classic nature of the vehicle and its importance in so many people's lives. Superb.
Cancer Patients Aid
Charity advertising is often the most impactful. Sometimes, it needs to be - and it's one of the reasons many agencies offer pro-bono work to the not-for-profit sector. Work in this field doesn't have to be shocking, but in this case a three word headline almost knocks us off our feet.
To encapsulate such a weighty proposition in four syllables, is copywriting talent of the highest order. Deservedly, this ad won an award at Cannes in 2003.
Selling a skinny sausage alongside chocolate bars was always going to be tough and for many years, Peparami was a very niche snack. The line 'It's a bit of an animal' went a long way to change that. I think it's the double meaning that is so appealing - simultaneously describing the contents of the package with disarming bluntness and suggesting its wild and potent nature is smart, funny and thought provoking.
The insane character accompanying the brand simply gave life to a headline which was already brave and provocative.
I have often said this is my favourite headline of all time and I have yet to change my mind. If the copywriter's art is to capture the benefits of the product or service and present it in a way that persuades the audience to act, then 'It does exactly what it says on the tin', meets the brief with honours. Not only do the writers (Liz Whiston and Dave Shelton, if memory serves) identify the most compelling aspect of the product range, they have achieved a level of audience insight which is truly impressive. It's a masterstroke of underselling, acknowledging that the consumer really doesn't want a plethora of overblown claims, just the promise the substance will do exactly what it promises in its name.
A simple notion, but far from simple to create. It's a tribute to the line that we now use it in general conversation to denote something straightforwardly effective. For me, it's a high watermark I'd be delighted to reach some day.
I hope you've enjoyed, or at least appreciated, the headlines in this post. I wrote one of them (but not one of the really, really good ones). And if you're in any doubt whether any of this matters, let me leave you with the words of David Ogilvy:
"On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger & consultant.
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