What Makes a Great Headline?

What is a Headline, and What Makes One Great?

Billboard Headline
••• Billboard Headline. Getty Images


From the early days of advertising, to today's billboards, print ads, and social media posts, headlines are one of the most important aspects of any advertising campaigm.

A good headline can attract attention. A great headline can turn a prospective customer into a sale. But what is the difference between headlines that just do the job, and headlines that really get under the skin of the consumer?

To answer that, let's first examine what a headline is:

What is a Headline?

A headline in advertising grabs the attention much like a newspaper's headline. An advertising headline is designed to be the first copy the potential customer reads, and it is usually written by a copywriter (but can also be crafted by a copywriter/art director team, or anyone in the creative department). Bold text, large font size, and various colors are some of the methods used to make the headline stand out from copy. A headline must be written well in order to be effective and draw the reader into the ad. 


Types of Headlines

There are generally two kinds of headlines.

The first type works hand in hand with an image. If the ad is done well, both elements rely on each other to create an advert greater than the sum of its parts. A classic example of this is the VW ad featuring a mechanic under the psychiatrist's couch, with the headline "are we driving our mechanics too hard?" The headline alone is not a great one.

The image alone is confusing. But together, they create a fantastic ad. 

The other kind of headline is one that does not need an image (or has an image that doesn't add anything to the headline). One only has to look at the classic billboard for the Economist for such an example - "I never read The Economist." - Management Trainee, Aged 42.

Traditionally, the latter was how advertisements were created, printed, and published for decades. A copywriter would work up the headline and body copy for an ad. That ad would then go to the art department, where an art director and/or designer would create imagery that played off the headline in some way, or complemented it. This was an old-fashioned way to do advertising, but was the cornerstone of every ad created in the forties, fifties, and early sixties. Then, Bill Bernbach came along. 

He revolutionized the industry by putting art directors and copywriters together as teams. Instead of copy coming first, and an image being created to accompany it, the entire ad campaign was created by the team. Maybe the image came first. Maybe the idea was formulated, and the headline and image came after. It is the foundation upon which all modern advertising is built. 


How To Write Great Headlines

A great headline starts with a great creative brief. In fact, many creative directors believe that the unique selling proposition (USP) in a brief is the first headline ever written for the campaign. It is the job of the creative department to write better headlines than that. An example comes from John Hiney, an account director on Abbey Life critical illness insurance, who wrote the USP "Don't let your illness cripple your family." It's a great headline, and a powerful USP.


Once you have a great creative brief, learn everything you can about the product or service that you are advertising. If possible, have it in front of you, on your desk. If it's a car, drive it. If it's a massage therapist, get a massage. You need to immerse yourself in the product. 

Next, look at where the ad will go. Is it going on a billboard in Times Square? Is it going in a magazine? If so, which one, and where in the magazine? Back page, center spread, opposite the contents page? 

Finally, start writing. Don't worry about being clever or creating amazing headlines from the get go. Just start writing. Write product benefits. Write experiences. Write words that connect the consumer with the essence of the product or service. You want to get it all down on paper (yes, paper ideally) so that ideas can start to form and merge together on the page.


Look back at your ideas, and you will start to see connections. Words will jump out. Phrases will pop. Suddenly, two seemingly unrelated thoughts combine to become a smart, compelling headline. 


30 of Advertising's Best Headlines

There are thousands upon thousands of headlines that deserve to considered for the list. So many great ones are written every year. But there are some that simply rise above, and are just impossible to forget. Here are 30 headlines that deserve their place in advertising history. 

  1. “They laughed when I sat down at the piano--but when I started to play” - US School of Music
  2. "I never read The Economist." - Management Trainee, Aged 42.  - The Economist
  3. Lemon - VW Beetle
  4. Apples make great carrots - Apple
  5. “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock” - Rolls Royce
  6. Where the women you hate have their hair done - Horst Salons
  7. Yesterday you said tomorrow - Nike
  8. Marry Rich. Kill Husband. Repeat. - ABC Daytime
  9. In one American state, the penalty for exposing yourself is death - Timberland
  10. Is this the best ad ever written? - The Ball Partnership
  11. Why you should think more seriously about killing yourself - The Samaritans
  12. In opinion polls, 100% of Economist readers had one - The Economist
  13. Where the women you hate have their hair done - Horst Salons
  14. If the welding isn't strong enough, the car will fall on the writer - Volvo
  15. Don't lose your Zippo. Lifetime friends are rare - Zippo
  16. It's like mom used to make. Just before she was arrested - Cider Jack Hard Cider
  17. McEnroe swears by them - Nike
  18. Don't just keep up with the Joneses. Pass them. - Porsche
  19. If you don't recognize it, you're probably not ready for it - Chivas Regal
  20. Alarm clocks. Hammers. Alarm clocks. - Target
  21. Hello boys - Wonderbra
  22. From the days when men were men. And so were the women. - Timberland
  23. Are you making plans for your wife's death? - Abbey Life
  24. Which one of these men do you think would be best at rape? - The Solicitors Regional Directory
  25. Trump Donald - The Economist
  26. Stop dreaming and start dreaming - Ikea
  27. Picks up five times more women than a Lamborghini - Daihatsu
  28. Could you turn the other cheek? - The Metropolitan Police
  29. Brazil has solved the problem of how to keep kids off the streets. Kill them. - Amnesty International
  30. Rediscover the lost art of the insult - Parker Pens

Work hard, do your research, and you could make it onto the list.