How to Write a Great Advertising Headline

And a look at 25 of the industry's best headlines

Designers meeting, brainstorming at whiteboard in office
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From the early days of advertising to today's social media posts, headlines are one of the most important aspects of any advertising campaign. A great headline can turn a prospective customer into a sale—for life.

But what is the difference between a headline that just gets the job done, and a headline that really gets under the skin of the consumer? First, a look at what a headline is.

What Is a Headline in Advertising?

A headline in advertising grabs a reader's 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 the 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 work in conjunction to create an ad greater than the sum of its parts. A classic example of this is the Volkswagon ad featuring a mechanic lying underneath 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 pithy, memorable 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 GE ad, "we bring good things to life."

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 complimented it somehow. 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 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. This formula 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 powerful 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? Will it go into a magazine? If so, which one? Drill down to 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 gut reactions to the product. Write words that will connect the consumer to the essence of the product or service. You want to get it all down on paper (yes, ideally paper) 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.

25 of Advertising's Best Headlines

There are thousands upon thousands of headlines that deserve to be considered for this list. But there are some that simply rise above, and are just impossible to forget. Here are 25 headlines that deserve their place in advertising history. 

  1. McEnroe swears by them - Nike
  2. Don't just keep up with the Joneses. Pass them - Porsche
  3. Hello, boys - Wonderbra
  4. Stop dreaming and start dreaming - Ikea
  5. In opinion polls, 100 percent of Economist readers had one - The Economist
  6. Picks up five times more women than a Lamborghini - Daihatsu
  7. Rediscover the lost art of the insult - Parker Pens
  8. They laughed when I sat down at the piano—but when I started to play - US School of Music
  9. "I never read The Economist." - Management Trainee (aged 42) - The Economist
  10. Apples make great carrots - Apple
  11. At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock - Rolls Royce
  12. Where the women you hate have their hair done - Horst Salons
  13. Yesterday you said tomorrow - Nike
  14. Marry Rich. Kill Husband. Repeat. - ABC Daytime
  15. In one American state, the penalty for exposing yourself is death - Timberland
  16. Is this the best ad ever written? - The Ball Partnership
  17. Why you should think more seriously about killing yourself - The Samaritans
  18. Don't lose your Zippo. Lifetime friends are rare - Zippo
  19. It's like mom used to make. Just before she was arrested - Cider Jack Hard Cider
  20. If you don't recognize it, you're probably not ready for it - Chivas Regal
  21. Alarm clocks. Hammers. Alarm clocks - Target
  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. Brazil has solved the problem of how to keep kids off the streets. Kill them. - Amnesty International