The Rant: The Top 10 Cruddiest Headlines That Prove You’re A No-Talent Hack

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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.

1:
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.

10. Puns.
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.

  1. AppleZ July 21, 2009

    My friend Cameron Bridges’ favorite. Or at least it used to be a couple of decades ago, “Turn ordinary, into extraordinary.”

  2. gaboosh July 21, 2009

    ______ is the new black.

  3. Marissa Ferrari July 21, 2009

    It’s not just [generic product]. It’s [brand-name product]. A la “It’s not just coffee. It’s Starbucks.”

  4. MattM July 21, 2009

    Great post. I just posted on bad puns the other day. You’ll love this one… http://tinyurl.com/njvq3j

  5. Jodi July 21, 2009

    Good list! All if these are the creativity equivalent of a movie trailer that starts, “In a world where….” And, listing anything as “the new black” also counts for hackiness.

  6. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett July 21, 2009

    I saw a hair salon with the name “Curl Up & Die.” Not exactly advertising, but a huge pun.

  7. Patrick July 21, 2009

    Reason # to…

  8. Tom July 21, 2009

    I’m a member of the Australian Writer’s Guild (AWG). One year they entitled our screenwriters conference about comedy “The Seriously Funny Screenwriters Conference”. I’ve always hated that hackneyed cliche but from the premier Writer’s organisation in our country?! Cringe… The next year’s conference? It was called “Text in the City”. Apalling. Based on that banality I didn’t bother going.

  9. Patrick July 21, 2009

    Paul- I think the first homework assignment they give students in cosmetology school is to come up with the most pun laden salon name possible. It’s a mandatory. Unless you own a nail place. That formula is Adjective + “Nails” = salon name.

  10. Walt Jaschek: Writer at large. July 21, 2009

    Don’t forget “Experience _____”, as in “Experience Quality,” “Experience Colorado” or “Experience Cheese.”

  11. PJ July 21, 2009

    This one is played out… One contact, call, touch, hug…etc…“at a time” BLAH!

  12. steve July 21, 2009

    all of these are spot on except the first. if you can sell a product without having to say anything, more power to you.

  13. Tim Archer July 22, 2009

    “[Brand]. Because life’s too short to [consume] bad [product category].”

  14. Vince July 22, 2009

    Hey Felix, this is an excellent top ten list. How about, “We promise you’ll be harassed by someone who hasn’t taken a shower in a month” Denver Public Transport, or “When you want to get overcharged for a half-assed job bring it on down to us” Auto Body Shop. I guess I missed the point, but I thought it was funny. You can cross-post this to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/ and link back to your site. We are trying to create a directory for top ten lists where people can find your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  15. Denise July 22, 2009

    Another deadly cliche is “Admit it” and its variation, “Face it.” They’re typically used as lead-ins for body copy that assumes you’ve secretely been wanting the product or service being sold.

  16. Marissa Ferrari July 22, 2009

    It’s about [noun]. It’s about time. As in “It’s about change. It’s about time.”

  17. Kelly O'Connell July 22, 2009

    Any headline that starts out with “Who says…?” Um, no one.

  18. Guy July 22, 2009

    “It’s the ______ EVERYONE’S talking about.” No. It’s not. P.S: I’m sticking this list up in my office, lest I ever forget.

  19. Gregg July 22, 2009

    “Something’s wrong when…” and “Contrary to popular belief…” are still under copywriter moratorium. Thanks, in part, to Luke Sullivan and/or Fallon McElligott Rice (the original one.)

  20. LB July 22, 2009

    This is actually to report on what I thought was a GREAT heading, from an Ontario truck company owned by the Fluke brothers. Their line was: If it’s on time, it’s a FLUKE. Some puns are great.

  21. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett July 22, 2009

    I used “contrary to popular belief…” once. It never got printed, but I’m still hanging my head in shame over that one.

  22. Allison July 22, 2009

    at You forgot: “…one <blank> at a time.” For instance, “Building your community, one brick at a time.” or “Changing the world, one degree at a time.” I die a little everytime I see that “concept” used.

  23. gigi July 22, 2009

    Radio is a terrible culprit of this. I can only assume that most radio spots are given to the intern to write and then given to the client’s intern to approve. Then again, most of the interns I have met are smarter than that. So who knows where these things get through. A particular favorite—and, by that, I mean one that makes me want to punch myself in the face—is the recent radio ad about “Good 0, Bad 0.” (There’s your painful new take on the good news, bad news). I have no idea whose ad it even is because they don’t say who they are until the end and I’ve only put myself through listening to the whole thing once. The rest of the time it is switch stations time for me.

  24. Emily July 23, 2009

    I gotta admit, sometimes I like the puns. In the right context, the cheesiness can be endearing rather than gag-inducing, and makes me think, “Hey, brand x has a sense of humor about themselves. They seem approachable.” It’s certainly not right for everyone, but I wouldn’t ban it altogether.

  25. Karen Goldfarb July 23, 2009

    “Isn’t it time you _________?” Turned the page? Punched you out? Fired me immediately? That ain’t copywriting, bucko.

  26. Mark Trueblood July 23, 2009

    I will admit to writing puns on occasion for certain audiences. I think if you write puns, you have to embrace it and come up with a good one. Don’t dip your toe in the punwater, jump in.

  27. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett July 23, 2009

    Good pun? I don’t think so.

  28. Chris Wooster July 23, 2009

    Most hated: “Can you say __________?” Fat, lazy copywriting.

  29. Chris Reinhard July 23, 2009

    I love this. Think you know Felix? Think again. This isn’t just an editorial; it’s a GREAT editorial.

  30. DB July 23, 2009

    It seems like every corporate mission statement or client Power Point presentation includes the phrase “Committed to Excellence.” If you’re using this phrase, you’re really not. It’s a phrase that becomes instantly ironic the second it hits the page. Not an ad headline obviously and these people aren’t supposed to know any better but still… I die a little inside every time I read it.

  31. Mike K July 24, 2009

    Gotta love “Our version of a traffic jam” with elk/buffalo/etc in the road for Wyoming/Montana/etc. I’m also a big fan of “Board meeting” for any extreme mountain resort.

  32. M.P. July 24, 2009

    Come for the________. Stay for the________.

  33. Andrew Krzysiak July 24, 2009

    ________ is the future. The future is now.

  34. JV July 24, 2009

    [product attribute], meet [product attribute] e.g., “Smart, meet Cheap.” for an engineered yet inexpensive bicycle handlebar model from Winwood Bikes

  35. holly July 28, 2009

    Get off your grass. For decking. I kinda like it. And I’m a little ashamed.

  36. Jp July 28, 2009

    My favorite (and bad) headline ever isn’t actually real, it’s from Bloom County: “Mystery Man Mugs Mimes With Meat, Millions Make Merry!” I’ll never forget Milo’s self-satisfied face after uttering that. As a side note, I once worked at a mag that, as part of its promotional material, included an flyer for an Asian recipes issue. The headline was: “Ah So Good Asian Noodles.” Amazingly, neither the copywriter nor the company prez thought this was a bad idea.

  37. Jeff July 28, 2009

    I will defend puns to the death!

  38. Hudson July 28, 2009

    You forgot: “It’s not your father’s [X].”

  39. Douglas July 28, 2009

    Real. [Adjective]. [Product].

  40. Douglas July 28, 2009

    I work for a small museum that is currently featuring an exhibit to contextualize the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. The exhibit attempts to make sense of why his work is so popular even though, in the eyes of the art historical community anyway, he’s at best a B or C grade painter. The exhibit is an honest assessment of the traditions from which his art emerges, but I does not make any real effort to downplay the implication that his art is mediocre. And yet, many of the visitors to the show fail to realize that. In fact, it would seem that most of them truly love his work. The nugget of truth here seems to me to be this: though these “cruddy hacks” are just that to those of us who know better, the reality is that a majority of the consuming public does not seem to know better. In other words, these “cruddy hacks” actually speak to a lot of people and move them to open their wallets. This in turn begs the question: are we really the ones who know better?

  41. Mark Trueblood July 28, 2009

    @Douglas: You hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, we can’t tell our customers what they’re supposed to like, or clients what they’re supposed to buy. Which, by the way, does NOT justify crappy or mediocre work. It just means we have to mentally step into our audience’s shoes when we create. Empathy is the Swiss Army Knife of an advertising creative.

  42. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett July 28, 2009

    I’m reminded of something at the Gareth Kay presentation, and I’m paraphrasing a little – “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, you’d get punched in the face.” If I went up to average joe, showed him a product and said “Smart, meet cheap” or “there’s strong, and there’s Brand X strong” I’d be lucky if I didn’t get laughed at or pushed to the floor. Why are puns and crap headlines ever excusable? Consumers are people, and people are getting tired of pompous, punny ad speak.

  43. TP August 5, 2009

    Sorry, Paul and others, but I don’t see people “getting tired of pompous, punny ad speak.” I just don’t. I see people who either don’t notice/care about ads like we do or who are actually laughing at these “corny” puns (or at least remembering them). Ask a focus group what their least favorite ads are, and they may rail the “clueless Dad” angle every cell phone commercial seems to take, or they might point out yet another ad involving “WE GOT YOUR STIMULUS PACKAGE RIGHT HERE!” (BTW, these are MY least favorite current trend). But puns? I doubt they could even name one unless pressed. Look, I agree that, in a copywriting vacuum, puns are bad. But having had countless friends and family tell me their “favorite ads” and seeing how many of them involve puns, I have to disagree with our holier-than-thou take on them. Sure, puns are lazy writing, but no one in the real world cares about that if they happen to be FUNNY. And FUNNY=MEMORABLE. I think sometimes we get a little too ahead of ourselves…puff ourselves up a little too much as “artists.” We write ads, people. And it honestly doesn’t piss me off when some copywriter writes a tagline for Sleep America that says, “Where America Goes to Sleep!” I actually smile a little and give them props for getting a message thru the clutter, albeit in a more rudimentary way. If you disagree, feel free to call me at “588-2300 Empire!”

  44. Josh Clauss August 6, 2009

    Can we talk about questions? “What are you waiting for? Start _______ today!” “…Get a _________ today!” “__________ got you down?” “Aren’t you tired of ______________?” “Are you looking for ____________?” The Informercial Approach. Perhaps the single most patronizing thing an advertiser can do, in my opinion.

  45. Sam Comer August 7, 2009

    A formula that won’t go away that I saw in a car ad just last night: “We didn’t invent the [NOUN], we made it [ADJECTIVE].”

  46. Emerson Biggens August 17, 2009

    You forgot one that was cooked up in Minneapolis, circa 1985 and reheated more that a church basement casserole. “Think of it as ….” Think of it as the world’s fastest tanning bed. Think of it as a vacation you never come home from. Think of it as an enema for your new business efforts. If you’re using this one…Think of it as God’s way to say go into telemarketing, son.

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