Issue #43, August 2011

"The average American sees three thousand ads a day."
—Professor Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice

Why Your Ads and Other Marketing Pieces Aren’t Being Read

The root of the problem is message clutter and the problem is worsening every day.

Marketing experts tells us that we have only three to five seconds to grab the attention of our customer or prospect and get her to read whatever it is we want her to read – or listen to whatever we’re saying to her.

This includes everything from a newspaper ad or billboard to a statement insert, direct mail piece, or email marketing notice sitting in the inbox. It also covers radio spots, TV ads, blogs, twitter messages, Craig’s List postings, door hangers, and online newsletters.

No matter which marketing channel you’re using, you have only a few, short seconds to catch the attention of your customer or prospect and pull her into your message. Failure to engage your customer or prospect means you’ve wasted your scarce marketing dollars.

When this happens, the blame falls squarely on you for either writing or approving a bad headline – a headline that fails to reach out and grab the attention of members of your target audience.

Your headline is the most important element in every marketing communication – regardless of the channel or format.

It’s that simple.


We’re experiencing a headline crisis in marketing today. The problem is missing and ineffective headlines have become the rule, not the exception.

Bad headlines are pervasive.

It’s as if writing and accepting bad headlines has mutated into a virus that’s spreading with no known cure. And the problem continues to worsen. This disease has spread to every marketing channel and shows no signs of letting up.

It’s affecting almost every marketer from the huge pharmaceutical and tech companies to the auto companies and even the local credit union and community bank.

What’s really frustrating is there is an easy cure for this illness.

And here’s the ultimate irony – the absolute BEST headlines today are created by people who many consumers consider the two biggest purveyors of junk mail...

...sellers of vitamin supplements, alternative health cures, and related newsletter subscriptions.

...experts promising financial and investment advice via seminars and newsletter subscriptions.

What’s behind the great headlines on these direct mail pieces?

These direct response marketers hire the absolute best freelance copywriters to write their copy, including the all-important headlines like you see in the sidebar to the right. In fact, these copywriters are the highest-paid copywriters in America today.

These experts and their copywriters understand that a single headline can make or break an expensive direct mail campaign. These are your headline experts.

Unfortunately, some of the worst headlines can be found on bank and credit union newspaper ads as we’ll see below.


Before you begin looking at this list, remember that members of the target audience for each of these ads devoted 5 seconds or less to each headline before making a decision to skip the ad or read it.

Now, spend as much time as you like studying each of these recent headlines from a bank or credit union newspaper ad and see if you can determine what product or service is being offered. You may want to write down your answers.

  1. Ready. Set. Buy!
  2. FOUND!
  3. it’s a new day. make it great!
  4. Swipe. Round Up. Save
  5. Expanding Lives
  6. How to skip while driving.
  7. The Perfect Arrangement
  8. Advertisers love lines this good.
  9. Your toolbox just got a lot more powerful.
  10.  Hello to Making Life Great.
  11.  Motor on Over.

You might get one or two by guessing, but basically, all are ineffective headlines – headlines that should never have been recommended, let alone approved for use.

Okay, here are the answers:

  1. Auto loans
  2. Checking accounts
  3. Certificates of Deposit
  4. Debit card usage
  5. Equity line of credit
  6. Auto loans
  7. Home loans
  8. Business lines of credit
  9. Commercial real estate loans
  10. Equity line of credit
  11. Auto loans


Our goal in this issue of the ACTON Marketing newsletter is to provide you with some useful information about how to recognize and write effective headlines – headlines that grab your prospect’s attention and get her to read the rest of your ad or marketing copy.

But first, why are headlines so important?


Put simply – the headline stands between you and success or failure.

In one of the five books he wrote about advertising, veteran copywriter John Caples tells his readers, “If you can come up with a good headline, you are almost sure to have a good ad.

It’s likely the greatest number of quotes about the importance of the headline was put in print by advertising great and author of two books on advertising, David Ogilvy. Ogilvy preached, “The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram which tells the reader whether to read the copy.”

Whether or not your ad, postcard, billboard, email, Craig’s List posting, direct mailer, or other marketing message gets noticed and read depends almost 100% on your opening line of copy – YOUR HEADLINE.

This was true many years ago when Caples and Ogilvy were at the top of their game and it’s still true today. In fact, your headline has to work even harder today to grab attention!


Because of the increasing proliferation of message clutter due to the rapid expansion of marketing channels available today.

Bottom line, marketing messages are coming at us at an unprecedented rate and the volume is only going to continue growing.

Therefore, if you want your marketing sales message to have any chance of being read, you must lead it with the absolute best possible headline – NO EXCEPTIONS.

And actually, the same is true for any marketing article or blog you might write and publish.

The good news is that you don’t have to hire a six-figure copywriter to come up with breakthrough headlines.

In this issue of the newsletter we are going to share three approaches that should help you improve your headline writing skills.

What, you’re not a copywriter and don’t need these skills? What about reviewing and approving headlines? If you’re at all involved in marketing, you need headline writing skills. It’s that simple.

Hey, wait a minute.

Are you a blogger? Do you sell items on eBay, Etsy, or Craig’s List? Have you ever written an article for a website?

Bottom line, every one of us must become more proficient at writing headlines if we want people to read what we’ve written.

Now for some headline writing secrets.


While every veteran freelance and agency copywriter past and present has his or her own secrets, rules, and checklists for writing and selecting the best headlines, we have chosen three unique recommendations to present in this issue of the newsletter.

  • The little known three-part headline
  • The IF...THEN formula
  • The Four U’s

Because they are unique, and a bit unusual, we hope you’ll remember them and put them to work immediately after reading this issue.

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Millions of Americans are suffering from digestive problems – especially older folks. The superb headline on the front of this supplement catalog speaks directly to this large group of consumers. “Solve All Your Digestive Problems for just $2.99!” You can bet that the big promise made in this headline will get a majority of these people to take the time to read what Dr. David Williams has to say about this supplement inside his catalog and then place an order. Catalogs and magalogs like this one are written by the country’s top copywriters to ensure they not only pay for themselves but generate huge profits for the owner. Proof of this is the consistency with which these catalogs have been created and mailed by Dr. Williams over the past decade. The eight-word headline will make or break this particular issue of the catalog. Bank marketers need to pay more attention to the headlines they write or approve on all marketing pieces. Carefully studying the headlines on catalogs and magalogs is an excellent place to start.



Shown above are a newspaper ad and two window signs that are part of a current credit union campaign promoting low rate auto loans. All three headlines are plays-on-words and irrelevant to the offer being made. The best headline for all three pieces can be found in the bold rate subhead. The best subhead can be found near the bottom of the newspaper ad. It reads “Get a speedy pre-approval today!” It’s missing on the window signs. Puns and other cute or humorous headlines are a waste of marketing dollars – they do not belong on your marketing pieces. Consumers looking to buy a new or used vehicle are interested in low rates, the amount of the monthly payment, and getting approved for the loan. Low rates suggest lower monthly payments. When promoting auto loans, your bold headline and subhead should address these important issues. Leave the catchy, cute headlines to the amateur copywriters.











“Write dozens of headlines. You never know exactly what you want to say before you say it, so giving yourself plenty of choices is the surest way to arrive at the best, most powerful headline.”

— Dean Rieck, freelance copywriter



Although you wouldn’t know it from the vast majority of headlines being used today, a headline does not have to contain just one sentence or phrase like those presented above. The copywriter, working with the art director, may choose to create a more eye-catching and effective headline using a three-part headline consisting of:

  1. Eyebrow or Kicker: The short line of copy appearing in the upper-left corner above the main headline, usually in smaller type. The eyebrow is most often used to identify the particular audience being targeted or to let the reader know you are offering something new or free.
  1. Main Headline: Set in larger, bold type, the main headline is where you present your primary benefit or make your promise.
  1. Subhead: Using a type size smaller than the main headline, here you can expand on the primary benefit or go into more detail about your promise.

Here’s an example of a three-part headline a bank might use when promoting lines of credit for small business owners:

ATTENTION Small Business Owners


Access your line in as little as ten working days!

Your kicker or eyebrow quickly catches the attention of small business owners scanning or reading the local newspaper.

Your big, bold headline offers small business owners the promise of a line of credit up to $100,000.

Finally, your subhead expands on the headline promise by informing these small business owners that the money is available within ten working days.

What’s most shocking is how seldom we see a three-part headline being used.

Now, compare this three-part headline with headline #7 in the list above which actually appeared at the top of a newspaper ad promoting business lines of credit.

Advertisers love lines this good

Now, imagine you’re a small business owner needing money to buy inventory and you’re scanning your morning newspaper while grabbing a bite to eat before rushing off to work. Being extremely busy with a lot on your mind this early in the morning, which of these headlines has a greater chance of quickly grabbing your attention – causing you to stop and read the rest of the ad?

The three-part headline speaks directly to the prospect. The five-word headline is simply a novice copywriter’s effort at humor to grab attention. What’s shocking is that it was ever submitted by the copywriter, let alone approved by the appropriate people working for the credit union running this ad.

After you finish reading this newsletter, consider grabbing a copy of your most current ad or other marketing piece and replacing the current headline with a three-part headline you’ve written. It may take some effort but write enough three-part headlines and you’ll discover one that works better than the existing headline.

Next, we are presenting an innovative recommendation made by veteran freelance copywriter Gary Bencivenga.


Freelance copywriter Gary Bencivenga has written thousands of headlines and tested many of them during his long career. He knows what works and what doesn’t work.

Among the many things he learned about writing headlines that perform best in today’s cluttered marketplace is to avoid overused words like “New,” “Improved,” and clichés like “Get rich quick,” “Lose weight fast,” and “Burn away fat,” and “Get rid of debt easily.”

Consumers have become so used to seeing headlines using these words and making these fantastic promises that they are apt to say after reading them, “yeah, sure.” And immediately after saying to themselves, “yeah, sure,” they move on – failing to stop and read your sales message.

So the goal is to write a headline that turns off your prospect’s “yeah, sure” response mechanism.

Bencivenga accomplishes this using two simple words – words he calls the two most powerful words in advertising.

Instead of simply revealing them right away, see if you can guess which of these two headlines generated the most response. According to Bencivenga, they were tested by a successful financial newsletter.

Headline #1

“If you’ve got 20 minutes a month, I guarantee to work a financial miracle in your life.”

Headline #2

“The Millionaire Maker
Can he make YOU rich too?”

In a split-run test, one of these headlines dramatically outperformed the other and became a profitable direct mail control package for years. This means that over time other headlines were continuously tested against the winner and were unable to outperform it.

Bencivenga’s headline writing secret is to sandwich your big promise or offer inside an IF...THEN construction.

According to Bencivenga, experience has proven that if you follow the word “IF” by a simple requirement your prospect has to meet, it apparently turns off her “yeah, sure” response mechanism, causing her to continue reading.

Now, looking back at both headlines you’ll see that headline #1 was the hands-down winner in the split-run test.

So Bencivenga’s headline formula works like this – start with an easy requirement followed by your strong offer or promise.

Here’s an example of how it might work for one of today’s new fee-based checking accounts that has replaced the traditional free checking account. While these new accounts have a monthly service fee, the fee is easily avoided by simply agreeing to meet one of two or three performance requirements such as direct deposit, debit card use, or agreeing to online statements.

Your new IF...THEN headline:

“If you meet one of three easy requirements, you’ll enjoy a fee-free checking account”

Now, compare this headline with a more traditional headline that you’re likely to encounter from one of today’s large banks:

“Open an ABC Bank everyday checking account and receive a $50 bonus.”

Yeah, sure! I doubt they’ll hand me $50 cash before walking out the door! I wonder what hoops I’ll have to jump through before seeing the $50?

The next time you are involved in headline writing or approval, consider Bencivenga’s IF...THEN formula for successful headline writing.

You can read Bencivenga’s entire article on the IF...THEN formula here.

By the way, are you aware of the successful four-step formula for giving a great speech? It was created by Richard Borden, Administrative Chairman of the Department of Public Speaking at New York University. Fortunately for copywriters, Gary Bencivenga discovered that using the Borden formula will also help you write a great headline. You can read Bencivenga’s entire article on using the Borden Formula here.

This next recommendation not only helps you write more effective headlines, you can use it to evaluate headlines presented by other copywriters before approving them.

An excellent three-part headline can be seen on the front cover of the magalog shown above. The kicker or eyebrow reads: “URGENT REPORT FOR CONCERNED INVESTORS.” This kicker identifies the target audience for this magalog. Instead of making a promise or presenting a benefit, the big, bold headline reports important news – the kind of news you won’t find in the mainstream media. It promises opportunity for investors – the target audience of this magalog. Finally, the subhead really grabs attention by making a major prediction about staggering losses. The purpose of this dire subhead is to get people to read the magalog to discover how they can avoid these losses. Again, when reading the kicker, headline, and subhead you have to consider the target audience for this magalog. These folks follow the market closely and are very interested in any information that will protect them from losing money while providing information about how to profit from such bad news. Like the supplement catalog shown above the copy for this magalog was written by one of today’s highest-paid freelance copywriters. Both the catalog and magalog are mailed in the millions.



Occasionally you’ll encounter a bank or credit union ad with an excellent headline and subhead. Such is the case with this Ally Bank magazine ad appearing in a March issue of Businessweek. The headline reads: “A checking account should accumulate interest. Not fees.” The headline makes a promise as the bank’s checking account pays interest on all balances and there is never a monthly service fee regardless of the balance. Most unusual is the subhead – it’s a testimonial from a reputable company, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. The subhead reads: “One of the best ‘no fees, no strings’ checking accounts.” This combination headline and subhead address what’s likely the most important checking account issue today – whether or not the checking account has a monthly service fee. Most consumers hate the idea of having to pay a monthly fee for their checking account. Addressing this in the headline and/or subhead is a smart copywriting decision.







“I use many tests to measure the strength of a headline before I’m happy with it. And I usually write 30 to 50 headlines before I pick the best.”

— Gary Bencivenga, freelance copywriter









“Your headline is the gateway to your sales copy. More than that: It’s the sales copy that persuades your prospect to read your sales copy.”

— Clayton Makepeace, freelance copywriter



Michael Masterson, one of the highest-paid, freelance copywriters working today, developed an easy method to assist you when writing and evaluating headlines. He calls it the Secret of the Four U’s.

As you can see below, his method consists of four words – each beginning with the letter “U” – that should be considered when crafting your headline.

  1. Urgency – your headline should give prospects a reason to take action now rather than wait until later to respond.
  2. Usefulness – your headline should promise something of value to your prospect.
  3. Uniqueness – your headline should suggest that what you are offering is somehow different or more valuable than what’s being offered by your competitors.
  4. Ultra-Specificity – the offer, promise, or benefit presented in your headline must be specific. Being vague loses readers.

Keeping all four words in mind as you are selecting the words for your headline helps ensure that the headline you ultimately choose for your marketing message will grab the attention of the greatest number of prospects and draw them into your sales copy.

Once you’ve written a number of potential headlines, you can then go back and evaluate or score each of them using the “Four U’s.”

Ideally, your best headline should score four points using the Four U’s. But a headline scoring three points can be just as effective. Your goal for every headline you write or approve is that it scores between 3 and 4 points.

Here’s an example of a headline that scores 4 points using the four criteria described above:

Stop paying a checking account fee...
FREE Checking and $100 Gift Card Pack When You Open Your Account!  

Or, what about this headline for your auto loan recapture mailer:

Start saving $124 a month now...
Current lender $517 – ACTON Credit Union $363...And Your Pre-Approved!

Of course, by now you know that you simply can’t write one headline and trust that it will be a winner.

While most copywriters start with a working headline, they wait until after the sales copy is finished before creating their list of headline alternatives. Often, the best headline is buried somewhere in the body copy.

Gary Bencivenga tells his copywriting students that he usually writes between 30 to 50 possible headlines for each assignment before selecting the one he believes will generate the most response.

Using Masterson’s Four U’s is a handy, easy-to-use tool when writing your headlines and evaluating them to determine which one should work best.

But, in the final analysis, testing is the only sure way to know which headline works best.

By the way, as an exercise, using the Four U’s, score the 11 bank and credit union headlines listed earlier in this issue. Had the copywriter behind each of these headlines done so, it’s likely he or she would have chosen to write additional headlines for consideration.

Now you have three new headline writing tools for your marketing toolbox.

Using Michael Masterson’s Four U’s, what score would you give the bold headline and two subheads inside the box on the front cover of the L.L. Bean catalog shown above? Does it create a sense of urgency? Yes, on page 2 you learn the free $10 gift card offer expires August 7. What about usefulness? Does the headline and subheads promise something of value? Yes. Free shipping with no minimum order requirement and products guaranteed to last. What about uniqueness? Does the headline promise something more valuable than what competitors are offering? Yes. Not only do you get free shipping but free shipping on any order amount. Are the headline and subheads ultra-specific? Yes. The details about the offer are very specific. This headline and subhead score a perfect 4. Try using the Four U’s on your next headline. Better yet, use it to score the headlines on existing brochures, ads, and other marketing items.



In the sidebar to the right are a few headline quotes from successful copywriters past and present.

Perhaps you don’t trust what the old-timers like Ogilvy, Caples, and Schwartz have to say about headlines. If you’re concerned that their advice is outdated, there are plenty of highly-paid copywriters working today who have lots to say about the importance of headlines and how to write them. Just don’t be surprised when you discover that most of them quote the old-timers.

If you’re still wavering as to the importance of the headline, perhaps the well-known 80/20 rule will convince you.

Freelance copywriter Dean Rieck writes: “Headlines are another example of the all-purpose 80/20 rule. Studies have shown that eight out of ten prospects will read absolutely nothing but the headline of any particular ad. That means that your headline alone carries 80% of the responsibility for the success or failure of any advertisement.”

You have to think about Rieck’s comment. He’s not saying that the eight headline-only readers simply move on without taking action. What he’s saying is that your headline had better deliver enough information about your offer as these eight readers will make a contact/no contact decision after simply reading the headline as they aren’t going to read the entire ad.

This is why puns, jokes, clever words, and other humorous headlines are a gigantic waste of marketing dollars.

While there are a number of books written by freelance copywriters over the years, one of the best is The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly. “Writing to Get Attention: The Headline” is the title of chapter two. Consisting of 25 pages, Bly includes four pages listing 38 of the best headlines, by type, from his extensive swipe file. Bly’s book is still available new at Amazon for just under $13.

And, thanks to the Internet, there are several websites where you can find lists of the best headlines ever written. One list containing more than 150 of the world’s best headlines is available here. A second list of the 100 greatest headlines ever written can be found here.

You might be surprised to learn that even today’s best freelance copywriters will refer to these lists for inspiration.

You can further your headline education by simply doing a Google search on the keywords “writing headlines” and reading some of the many articles available.

Hopefully, we’ve successfully convinced you of the critical importance of your headlines – no matter which format and marketing channel you’re using.

This is the front cover of freelance copywriter and prolific author Robert W. Bly’s 1985 book, The Copywriter’s Handbook. The third edition is now available at for just under $13. It’s one of the best books ever written about direct response copywriting. Chapter 2 covers headline writing. Consisting of 25 pages, four pages are devoted to listing 38 of the best headlines selected from Bly’s extensive headline swipe file. It’s worth the price of the book to get Chapter 2 and the list of headlines to study.



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