A Tale of Buried Treasure

Free-Range Thinking | April 2002

Valuable data on how newspaper and magazine readers reacted to hundreds of public interest ads was sitting in files at RoperASW. Why had no one seen it? Because no one asked. until now.

Each year, the Starch division of RoperASW (formerly Roper Starch Worldwide) measures reader responses to over 25,000 ads in more than 400 newspapers and magazines nationwide. Each ad is subjected to a minimum of 100 reader interviews, a process designed to project how well that ad captured attention, sustained interest, and branded its sponsor’s name in the minds of most readers. For print advertisers, a Starch readership study can be a powerful tool for defining what works.

Between 1990 and 2000, Starch analyzed hundreds of public interest print ads. The results were deposited in the company’s database, available (for a fee, of course) to any nonprofit or foundation that wanted to learn more about the performance of its ads or even the entire sector. No one asked, however, probably because – like me – they were unaware of the database, RoperASW, or both.

That changed on October 31, 2000, when I read an article about a Starch study of dot-com advertising. I called the company’s New York headquarters to ask if they had ever conducted a similar sector-wide study of public interest advertising. The short answer was no, but then they discovered all those tested ads sitting in their database.

That one telephone call led me to a treasure trove of public interest ads, a year of additional research, and ultimately to write a book, Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes, summarizing what I learned along the way. (See “free-range follow-up” below for details.) The book offers seven “Print Ad Principles” that can help public interest advertisers create more effective ads, and the following is an excerpt from principle #3, which focuses on headlines.

Principle #3

Write headlines that offer a reason to read more.

In many ads, the headline will be the first element readers see. As such, it plays the pivotal role of capturing attention and driving it deeper into the ad. After you’ve considered the effect of the ad in its totality (as described in principle #1), pay close attention to the headline and make sure it’s bringing readers “inside the tent.”

State a benefit, arouse interest, or break news.
“They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play.” is one of the most famous headlines in advertising history. Its creator, John Caples, went on to write Tested Advertising Methods, an industry classic now in its fifth edition. In this book, Caples contends that good headlines do at least one of three things:

  • Appeal to the reader’s self-interest by offering a clear, tangible benefit.
  • Arouse curiosity that can be gratified by reading further.
  • Break news that will also spur the reader to delve into the text.

David Ogilvy claims that five out of every six people who read your ad will read only the headline. Consequently, if your headline doesn’t perform at least one of the functions Caples specifies, you could lose most potential readers at this point.

Keep it short (but if you need more words to be genuinely intriguing, don’t be afraid to use them.)
According to Roper ASW’s Philip Sawyer, “Starch data indicate that short, punchy headlines (i.e., 9 words or fewer) perform best in gaining initial reader attention and usually work most successfully in leading the eye to delve into the body copy.” Jeff Boal of the PlowShare Group (creator of ads for World Wildlife Fund, National Crime Prevention Council, and the Environmental Protection Agency) likens print ads to billboards, which also require concise appeals.

That said, Caples points out that brevity is no guarantee of effectiveness: “Long headlines that say something are more effective than short headlines that say nothing.”

Whether you take the long or short road, Jonathan Polansky of Public Media Center recommends putting headlines in the form of a question whenever appropriate. “If you ask a question,” says Polansky, “the reader is going to come up with an answer of some kind. You’ve already started a dialogue, and good print ads are dialogues.”

Know how your headline plays off your illustration.
Most headlines work in tandem with a photograph or illustration, and their location on the page should be a function of this relationship. “If the visual is a payoff to a headline,” says Fallon Worldwide’s Tom Lichtenheld in Cutting Edge Advertising, “then theoretically you put the headline at the top and the visual below. If it’s a visual concept, the headline is small and goes at the bottom.”

In Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy goes so far as to present a specific formula:

  • When the illustration carries the major responsibility of transferring information, Ogilvy recommends using a large photo (80% of a page), and a short headline of up to 9 words.
  • When the text is more important than the illustration, Ogilvy recommends a shallow photo (25% of a page) with a headline of up to 20 words.

Just as every ad must have a focal point, you must resolve the relationship between the headline and the photo, determine which is the leading element, and proceed with your design accordingly.



Great Wall, Better Headline

“In headlines.say something specific and concrete. It will make your argument more persuasive and your ad more interesting. Here’s an example of the power of detail. The headline read: ‘It began 400 years before Christ. It is visible from Mars. You can touch it this spring.’ Punctuated by a small picture of the Great Wall of China, the details in this headline made me keep reading about Royal Viking’s cruises to China.”

Luke Sullivan, author – Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This

Size and placement clearly position the headline as the leading element in
this ad for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence – and it works.
You read the headline first and then look at the photograph, and if that doesn’t
make you feel ill, angry, or at the very least curious, your heart isn’t beating.


 free-range follow-up

Kiss Bad Ads Goodbye

Creating public interest print ads that work is an art, and a particularly challenging one at that. Fortunately, there are several easily learned techniques that can improve the chances your ad will be noticed, read and remembered. Documented through research and tested over time, these seven “Print Ad Principles” can help any nonprofit or foundation compete more effectively in an increasingly cluttered marketplace of ideas.

Whether your work involves creating print ads from scratch or reviewing finished products, Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes can help you work smarter. Based on an unprecedented 10-year study of public interest advertising, and incorporating interviews with leading practitioners in the field, this book will help you understand once and for all what readers are looking for and whether or not your ad is giving it to them.

How to Order
Free copies are available to staff members of nonprofits and foundations. Please send an email request to andy@agoodmanonline.com and include the full mailing address to which your copy should be shipped. (Supplies are limited, so one per customer, please. Allow two weeks for delivery.)

Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes was made possible through the generous support of The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and The Surdna Foundation. Grantees of these organizations may also obtain copies by contacting their program officers.