2016-12-12_1415If you’re serious about creating great ads, you’ve undoubtedly seen and studied them.

Legendary ads created by the giants of the industry. Ads created by the likes of Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett, Lois, Ally, Riney, Clow. Ads that can be referenced by name alone.

They’re supposed to be teaching aids. Unfortunately, most copywriters look at those ads and decide to copy the superficial: the style of the ad, the layout, or the exact phrasing of the headline.

What they don’t copy is how the ad solved a communication challenge — the strategic approach that the advertising team took to make a point more credible, or emotionally resonant.

Here’s an example of one of those classic ads I mentioned. The “Lemon” ad from Bernbach’s VW campaign:

volkswagen_lemon_hires1 Now, there are two major takeaways from this ad, in my opinion:

  1. The (at that time) shocking idea of putting a derogatory word or title next to a picture of the product
  2. Showing off  quality by spotlighting a manufacturers willingness to discard items that fail to meet exacting standards

Now, if you’re a schmuck, you’ll copy the “Lemon” headline exactly as is (and justify it as an homage), rather than copying the strategy. And maybe it’ll work OK-ish for you so long as you include the second takeaway in your body copy.

But if you’re smart, you’ll figure out how to get the juice from the strategy without ripping off the exact headline. Instead of copying the exact phrasing, you’ll copy the strategy and make it your own.

In other words, you’ll do something like this:


Now, the headline isn’t quite as punchy as “Lemon.”  And, no, the ad ain’t perfect.

But whoever wrote this captured the “throw out anything that doesn’t meet exacting standards” strategy perfectly. And the ad works.

In fact, I was just browsing the magazine it came from at an airport when the ad leaped of the page and smacked me upside the face. I ended up buying the entire magazine just to be able to scan the ad.

And that’s how you steal an ad idea: look for the underlying persuasive strategy, copy it, then make it your own.

P.S. If you’ve never read the book Steal Like An Artist, it’s got lots more advice on how to steel ideas and make them your own. And it comes highly recommended by yours truly. 

2016-12-06_2145Ironically enough, it IS an intriguing headline:

Why Writing Creative Headlines Hurt Conversions: What We Learned Analyzing 150,000 Opt-Ins

But the point the author purports to make is a dangerous one.

Now, to be fair, the author, Sean Bestor, says at the outset that article headlines do better when they’re creative and ought to be creative.

But he claims that headlines for pop-ups (i.e., call-outs and offers) shouldn’t be “creative.”

And to that I can only call bullsh*t.

Here’s why:

First, understand that Sean equates “creative” with “designed to create curiosity” (at least for the purposes of his article). And this is the crux of his problem.

Because there are 5 freakin’ letters in AIDAS* and for whatever unfathomable reason, Sean has decided not to read past the initial AI.

Generating curiosity through creative headlines works awesome when it comes to grabbing ATTENTION and generating INTEREST. That’s why Sean (rightly) says that you should continue to create and use creative headlines for content marketing. Because that’s essentially the job of the headline for an article or a print ad — to grab the reader’s attention and create enough interest in the material to get the rest of the ad looked at/read.

But once you actually have the visitor’s attention and interest, it’s now time to create DESIRE and ACTION.

In other words, you have to (eventually) make an offer which your visitor will find relevant (i.e., desirable) and credible (i.e., worth taking action on).

In Sean’s cited examples, the “straightforward” headlines win because they do just that: they provide clarity around what’s actually being offered and substantiate the value of the offered download.

In contrast, the “creative” headlines didn’t do any of that mainly because they were not designed to. They were written  generate curiosity, not instill desire, so the headlines kept the offer vague and provided no substantiation of value. The visitor, in turn, now left in the dark about what was actually on offer, opted out. A confused prospect never buys, as they say.

But don’t take my word on it; take a look at one of Sean’s examples for yourself:


Frankly, I don’t believe there is anything inherently less creative about “Every Tactic, Ranked (With The Tools And Conversion Rates)” than there is about “Are You Collecting Emails Wrong?”

In fact, I’d say the use of the word “Every” and the inclusion of the parenthetical remark in the so-called straightforward headline actually show a great deal of creativity. It’s just that the creativity was aimed at — you guessed it — generating desire and action rather than attention and interest.

Think about it, at this point App Sumo was essentially offering the visitor a toolbox. So how would a copywriter make that toolbox more appealing?

  1. They’d talk about how complete the toolbox was (enter use of the word “every”), and
  2. They’d talk about the included tools’ proven effectiveness at doing this or that job (with tools and conversion rates).

In fact, I’d dare say that more persuasive thought went into the so-called “straightforward” headline than went into the so-called creative headline.

Sure, the creative headline leverages the question technique and the “accuse them of doing something wrong” technique to generate curiosity, but does that really make it more creative or any more finely wordsmithed than the other headline?

The point is that creative copywriting — including the crafting of headlines — can be aimed at any number of goals beyond generating curiosity. Goals like inspiring greater desire for an offered item, substantiating one’s claims, or creating urgency to act now.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about creative vs. straightforward headlines. This is about knowing where and how to aim your creativity based on where the prospect is within the AIDAS persuasion model.

If you already have the readers attention and interest, it’s time to inspire desire and get them to take action. So aim your creativity there.

*AIDAS is a marketing acronym that stands for Attention-Interest-Desire-Action-Satisfaction, although most marketers leave off the final S.