Why “Good” Headlines Fail Miserably

On average, they say, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline. But only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your copy.

If this doesn’t prove why good headlines are vital nothing will.

So what’s lacking in 80% of headlines? Here’s a story that should enlighten you.

Years ago, an agency asked me to improve a disastrous ad they’d run for Chambers Encyclopedia.

Their top team had worked hard on it. The writer went on to be acclaimed (rightly) as probably the best creative director this country has ever produced.

They took a full page ad in a Sunday magazine, and asked readers a question most parents surely ask themselves.

Their headline was:

Do you have a bright child?

The picture showed a boy’s face looking out of the page. The copy was beautifully written. All about how if you had an encyclopedia your child would benefit.

Nothing obviously wrong. But the ad only pulled a handful of responses. Why?

To be honest I was as surprised as anyone, but I thought for a bit.

I asked myself, what was the ultimate benefit to the parent? How could I dramatise it, make it come to life?

I came up with a new headline:

“Mummy, mummy, I’ve passed”

The new ad used a picture of a boy running up a garden path having just passed an exam, his mother waiting to hug him.

The subhead said: “What can you do to make sure this magic moment comes true foryourchild?”

The ad was far smaller than the original – about 8 inches in a double column.

It got so many replies the sales people couldn’t cope.

One of my friends who worked at that agency used to call me Drayton “Mummy, mummy” Bird.

See the difference?

The original headline made sense – but was a little cold. The new ad dramatised the moment when the benefit was realised.

It used the power of emotion and it told a story.

When you look at the famous headlines of the past, many of the best do that.

For example…

  • Here’s an extra $50, Grace. I’m making real money now.
  • They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but when I started to play!
  • You can laugh at money worries if you follow this simple plan.

So if you want people to read your ad, find the emotion most likely to move them, build your headline around it – and if you can, tell a story..

You can play on many emotions including:

  • Greed
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Pride
  • Loneliness
  • Laziness
  • Curiosity
  • Lust

And if you have trouble doing that, just remember Dr Johnson: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Imagine you will be shot if your headline doesn’t get read.


  1. […] a top marketing expert, notes that while 80% of viewers will read a headline, only 20% stop to read the body copy. So, why is it that most companies are spending the majority of their time crafting the content? It […]

  2. Rezbi


    This article of your has just given me a great idea for the headline for a vitamin supplement.

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