What makes a great advertising headline?

What makes a great headline? One myth that needs to be nailed into a lead coffin and buried at least six feet under right now is this one: good advertising headlines involve a pun.

Where this nonsense actually originated I have no idea, but practically every junior creative team I come across (and far too many senior ones as well) seem to think that all you have to do to create a great print ad is write a pun. Their portfolios are full of them. The press is full of them.

My own theory is that this misguided belief stems from a lack of understanding that a great headline depends on a great thought.

A great headline contains a great idea that resonates with the reader. And if it’s a great thought, it doesn’t really matter how you write it—the actual words you use are secondary to the idea it encapsulates.

Or, as any good copywriter knows, WHAT you say is always much more important than HOW you say it.

Think of the famous Rolls Royce press ad: “At 60 mph the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock”. 

This headline contains a beautifully engaging thought.

The feature it’s communicating is simply that this car is unbelievably quiet.  But to turn this feature into a headline that emotionally resonates with the potential buyer, the headline brings it to life—by painting a word-picture that puts the reader right there in the sumptuous, leather-clad driving seat. You can almost hear the delicate tick of the clock as you read it.

But because the line has a strong idea, you could actually write it in any number of ways and it would still be just as powerful.

It’s what the headline is about that counts.

The lazy headline writer who simply looks for a pun has failed to grasp this basic truth and believes that the HOW is more important than the WHAT. So they aim for what they think is amusing wordplay instead of doing the much, much harder job of finding a fantastically engaging thought that brings to life a clear, relevant and hopefully unique, product benefit.

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