I Hated This Headline … So Why Did it Work?

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This Copyblogger post missed the boat. (I thought.)

The bitter wording of its headline blemished the Copyblogger brand and should have been replaced. Chances are you wouldn’t have run it. Brian Clark did.

There are four people at Copyblogger whose job it is to inspect headlines at each stage of editing. (One Copyblogger post is published daily; there are more inspectors than posts.)

Headlines have been rejected for miscalculations of word choice barely visible to the eye.

We pluck the lemons, you get the plums …

Which means that I apparently need more practice plucking, because Ramsay Taplin’s headline professing hate for the very site it was published on turned out to be a plum.

But how?

For the answer, let’s turn back the hands of time and study one of the greatest contradictory headlines of all time.


On page 73 of his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy (the man once called the “most sought-after wizard” in advertising) discusses short versus long headlines, citing research he commissioned:

Starch reports that headlines with more than ten words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail advertisements found that headlines of ten words sell more merchandise than short headlines. Conclusion: if you need a long headline, go ahead and write one; and if you want a short headline, that’s all right too.

Remember that. We’ll come back to it later.

In the next sentence, Ogilvy goes on to cite one of the most famous and successful short headlines in history: Volkswagen’s Lemon ad, which “contributed a lot to the success of Volkswagen in the United States.”

Let’s take a look at that ad and see what it can teach us about why the headline “Why I Hate Copyblogger” works on Copyblogger.

(Click the image to enlarge it in a new window.)


The Lemon ad works for two simple reasons, neither of which has anything to do with the length of its headline.

First, upon initial glance at the ad, it appears to be conveying a negative message. What could be a worse word to juxtapose with an image of a car than “lemon”?

The mind races with possibilities.

  • Is this an attack ad from a Volkswagen competitor? (Everybody likes a fight, so that would be intriguing.)
  • Is it some kind of egregious copywriting error or joke-gone-wrong by Volskwagen? (Everybody likes seeing supposed smarty-pantses mess up, so that too would be intriguing.)
  • Is it — could it really be? — Volkswagen purposefully calling their own car a lemon? (Everybody likes to make sense of what at first seems to be completely contradictory, so that would also be intriguing.)

Bottom line: the headline is intriguing, no matter how you read it initially. It makes you want to know more.

And the #1 goal of a headline is to get the first sentence of your copy read. So … Lemon wins.

The second reason the headline works is because the copy is brilliant. (It’s so brilliant that, you may have noticed, I made my intro to this post a blatant homage to it.)

Read the copy of the ad and you realize that, yes, the headline is referring to a Volkswagen, but it’s referring to a Volkswagen that will never, ever see the light of a showroom, let alone your garage.

Volkswagen’s quality control is that good. Which is the point: They are committed to outstanding quality control, and they are more than competent at it.

They pluck the lemons; you get the plums.

Misdirection for the win

Let’s summarize here, because it’s essential to where we go next:

By offsetting your expectations with a negative and self-referential headline, Lemon gets you to the read the ad. Then your expectations are flipped again when the brilliant copy serves to espouse a great virtue of Volkswagen.

Interestingly, the copy does not directly contradict the headline. Volkswagen does produce lemons. They admit it. They just won’t let the lemon ever get to you, the consumer. (That’s the benefit. Their quality control is the feature.)

What the copy does is provide context for the headline that you never imagined when all those initial possibilities were racing through your mind after reading it. And that is why you keep reading.

The result is that you come away impressed.

And it all started with a simple, short, strange headline.

Just like Ramsay Taplin’s “hateful” post from a month ago.

So … why does Ramsay’s headline work?

Ramsay’s headline works by following the formula of Lemon.

The headline is negative and self-referential, and it uses that misdirection to create the intrigue necessary to get the first line of copy read. Mission accomplished.

Yet failure is still possible, because the copy has to be good. If it’s not, people look back to the headline, feel duped or unfulfilled, and Ramsay looks like a fool. (And so do we, for running it.)

But Ramsay delivers.

He provides context for the headline and makes useful, relevant points. He fulfills his promise and delivers value.

Plus, it’s short

Ramsay smartly chose a short headline with punch as opposed to a long one.

This is the right choice because — remember the Ogilvy quote from above? — Ramsay is not trying to sell anything with his post other than his ideas. He wants attention, not sales.

Short headlines draw attention; long headlines sell.

This is why Lemon works as well.

Yes, there is a product being advertised, but there is no call to action to buy. The immediate goal is to sell an idea, not a car. It’s a brand-builder. So short works.

But one thing still scares me …

Ramsay’s post has over 100 comments. It has also been shared an amount commensurate to other posts published on Copyblogger on the same day of the week.

So the data backs up that the headline works.

Many of the comments laud the headline specifically, like this one from Amandah:

I saw your Copyblogger post sitting in my inbox; I did a double take when I read the headline. You better believe I had to click on the post. I think your headline is one of the best I’ve read. Simple, yet effective. Thanks for a great headline writing lesson.

But another comment from the post, by Jackson Anderson, hints at an initial misgiving I had about the headline that has not completely gone away.

Firstly the headline grabbed from a retweet so I actually had no idea where this has been published and all I could think is “but it’s such a good site with amazing content, have I missed something to hate?” haha

So … what if Jackson had not clicked over? Might a seed have been planted in his head that he should hate Copyblogger too — without understanding Ramsay’s context?

The post was tweeted multiple times to Brian Clark’s 155,000+ followers, shared nearly 1,000 times over all social channels, as was sent out via email to our 190,000 subscribers. There are plenty of other people out there who saw the headline but, unlike Jackson, never clicked back over. Some of those people know the post ran on Copyblogger (thus lessening the potential for a negative impact), but many others did not.

Is this an issue?

We can’t ever really know for certain as such a sentiment would not show up in the comment section, and there is no way to measure it. But it remains a potential unintended consequence of the headline, something to consider.

I’m curious what you think. So leave a comment below.

But first, get free headline help

Make sure you download our free ebook How to Write Magnetic Headlines.

I never write a headline without consulting the tips and templates in this ebook first (seriously, every … single … time), and you too can have that same headline-writing knowledge available anytime you need it.

Thanks for your attention. I’ll see you soon with another edition of Headlines That Work.

About the author

Jerod Morris

Jerod Morris is the Director of Content for Copyblogger Media and a founding member of the Synthesis Managed WordPress Hosting team. Get more from Jerod on Twitter and .

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