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Volume 32 In A Series By Felix
There were more than 10, but top 10 lists are nice and easy to digest. Now before anyone says “Oy Felix, you’re always complainin’ that ads don’t have any copy in ‘em any more” let me say this; you’re right. I do complain about that, a lot. But it’s this lack of copywriting as a skill that is leading to the repetition of some God-awful formulaic lines being used over and over again. Some take on slightly different forms, a quick switch of tense, a word extended here or there, but the premise is the same. And if you find yourself looking down at your sketch pad (if you even use one…most of you are chained to a Mac) and see one of these staring back at you on more than one occasion, it may be time to pull the plug.
Oh, and if you’re a CD who accepts any of these, you’re even worse. If you’re a junior who’s read a few too many award show books and has no real client experience, I’ll look the other way. Once. But as an experienced creative with team-leadership on your resume, you should be shot for most of these; hopefully in the head several times to avoid any possibility of you coming back from a coma and producing and/or approving more mindless vomit.
OK, so true to form I’m starting with the most obvious one – no headline at all. They used to be considered rarities; more difficult to spot than Big Foot’s bathing suit. In fact, ads without headlines were referred to as “headless wonders” or “lazy copywriter syndrome.” Alas, these days they’re the norm, thanks largely to a new breed of awards show that is more concerned with back-slapping and art appreciation than actual advertising. As these “headless wonders” are so prevalent, it’s hard to punish offenders with death. But just know, this craze will fade out, and when headlines make a comeback, your one-trick-pony portfolio will be “worth less than a truck full of dead rats in a tampon factory” (thanks Top Secret).
2: Size matters.
This has gone beyond a bad headline. To call it a cliché would be an insult to bad clichés. It’s now so overused and trite that even the sight of it on a concept makes me feel physically sick. “Ah yes, but I have a fantastic new way to use it” you’re saying. No, you don’t. Not even Nike or Apple could make this work. If this ever makes it onto your pad, consider a new career. If it gets printed, consider yourself lucky that there’s someone even dumber than you are out there – the idiot client who bought it.
3: There’s [attribute]. And there’s [product] [attribute].
This formula ran its course decades ago, but it’s still out there. It’s easy enough to use, you can do it right now with the product or service currently on your creative brief. For example, you’re advertising strong beer, so you say “There’s strong. And there’s BADASSBEER strong.” How about a bed? “There’s comfort. And there’s SLEEPYTIME comfort.” Maybe a lock, or an alarm system? “There’s secure. And there’s KNOX secure.” You can go on like this for an eternity, and some idiot client will no doubt love it because it has their product name or service smack in the middle of the headline. Headlines like these worked, once upon a time. But then again, buggy whips used to fly off the shelves. Put this formula out of its misery, please.
4. Start your engines.
Oh yeah, this one is edgy. And it doesn’t have to apply to automotive advertising. You can use it on ads for men’s razors, beer, food, shit you could even use it for toilet paper or condoms. All it means is “get ready” and then your snazzy visual can do the rest. Yep, it’s fair to say I’ve always hated this one.
5. Or buy a [product].
There’s a famous ad for Volvo, it must be at least 20 years old now, that shows a kid wrapped up in a huge roll of cotton wool. The headline – “Or Buy A Volvo.” It was a powerful ad back then, most likely because it was the first time it had been done. Since then, I’ve seen that same headline/visual formula way too many times and I’m personally sick of it. It’s an easy enough one to mimic; just do something blatantly silly in the visual and then counteract it with your “Or Buy A [Product]” headline. It could be a guy keeping his eyes open with matchsticks for an energy drink. Maybe it’s a guy freezing his ass off in the freezer for an air conditioner. I’m sure you can think of more than I can, but you get the drift. It’s easy, it’s been done and it’s time to drop this one.
6. There’s only one way to spell [word/phrase] – [brand].
Ok, there are many derivatives of this. I’ve seen it begin as “there’s only one way to spell value” or “we have one word for great deals” or even “look up fun in the dictionary and you’ll see us.” The copy may change, but the crappy idea is the same. You say one word and then spell it out as another. Refreshment is spelled C O K E; Tough is spelled S A M S O N I T E; Reliable is spelled V O L V O. Well, this whole direction is spelled S H I T. It’s not original, it’s just telling people what to think rather than telling them how good the product or service is. It’s the equivalent of a comic coming on stage and telling you he’s funny rather than telling you a joke. Don’t go there.
7. Think you know [word/product/brand]. Think again.
Arrghhh! Is there a shittier turn of phrase out there than this obvious piece of used toilet paper? “Think You Know Tough? Think again.” “Think You know CBS? Think again.” Think you’re a copywriter? Think again.” I’ve seen this in a handful of student books and I just had to stop turning the pages when I saw it. I was either laughing too hard or pissed off for having my time wasted. If you’ve ever written this in copy, shame on you. If you’ve written it as a headline, you suck. If you actually got it printed, well, there are no words to describe the shame you should be feeling right now.
8. Got [brand/product]?
Probably the most copied headline formula in advertising history. This snowclone (a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers) was original created by the mighty Goodby Silverstein & Partners in 1993 for the California Milk Processor Board. “Got Milk?” has been going strong ever since, with more celebs endorsing the milk mustache than you see at the average movie premiere. But advertising being what it is, various crappy products and services jumped on the successful bandwagon. I’ve seen “Got Brakes?”, “Got Clothes?” and the infamous “Got Pus?” for PETA (it was pulled due to a lawsuit). If you are looking at your blank page, thinking of a headline for your new client, and you start writing the word GOT, reach for the loaded gun instead.
9. The good and bad news.
The bad news – this article isn’t over; the good news – it will be soon. You already know where I’m going with this because you’ve heard it hundreds of times before. Sometimes the formula gets tweaked, which usually makes it even more cringeworthy, like “The good news is you can now get Armor Hot Dogs for a buck. There is no bad news.” Wow, killer. Or the old “The good news – Ferrari is now on sale. The bad news – there aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy it.” This tired excuse for a headline deserves a slow and painful death, but that’s already what it’s getting so why don’t we just all agree to send this one packing, today.
Merriam-Webster describes puns as “the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound.” I describe them as “painfully obvious wordplay.” And I’m being kind. Puns have made their way onto my sketch pad before. Once, a CD caught sight of one and proceeded to pass it around the entire department. I was careful never to write those things down again, unless of course I planned on burning the evidence seconds later. Now I’m not against the playful use of words, that’s my job as a writer. But puns are instantly recognizable. They make you cringe, they are like nails down a chalkboard to any half-decent creative. Want examples of some puns? Here you go:
“Thanks for the brake.” Denver Public Transport
“Drop your pants here.” Dry cleaners
“The best place to take a leak.” Radiator Repair Shop
“May we have the next dents.” Auto Body Shop
“Speedy-Gone-Garbage.” Trash removal company
“We just keep rollin’ a lawn.” Sod farm
“Aromootherapy.” Clover-Stornetta Dairy
Occasionally, a pun is so damned awful it makes you laugh, for a second, like the Comcast work – e.g. Save Big Bucks (with a guy saving a drowning stag…groan). But they certainly aren’t clever or persuasive, and they leave a nasty residue on the brand. Unless you’re 11 years old and writing your first ad, you have no excuse for a pun; and if you think you write good puns, you are sadly mistaken.
I know there are more examples of bad headlines out there, so if you know any, please add to the rant. Or don’t bother. But please, don’t propagate any more of them and release them on the general public.