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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 at 9:58 am

Are Your Headlines Offensive?

By Jeff Sexton
October 9th, 2008

Imagine the following:  You’re alone at night, walking to your car in an isolated area.  A large man pops out of an alley and heads towards you.  It’s not just your nerves, he’s clearly coming after you, so you get ready to defend yourself.  In the dim light you see what looks like a club in his hand.  He swings.  You throw your hand up and block! 

Bet that conjured up some not-so-nice feelings, didn’t it?  Now imagine it just a bit differently this time:

…A large man pops out of an alley and heads towards you.  It’s not just your nerves, he’s clearly coming after you, so you decide to take him out.  In the dim light you see what looks like a club in his hand.  He swings.  You hit his arm so hard you knock the club out of his hand; he stumbles and falls.*

What you’ve just experienced is the difference between a defensive and offensive mindset.  Both scenarios involved the same situation, but on the second time I had you imagine an offensive mindset where you mentally decided to take control of the situation.  And I’ll bet that the second scenario left you with remarkably different emotions, didn’t it?

Now ask yourself this, if you’re writing copy that’s going to force emotionally uncomfortable or downright scary topics onto your readers (because your product or service will help readers deal with or solve those problems), which mindset do you want them in?

Of course, if you have several paragraphs of copy to play with, you’ll want to go back and read my previous material on dealing with pain-based copy and negative mental images.  Basically you’ll want to intentionally dial down the intensity of the initial negative mental image and dial up the intensity of the final, positive mental image.

But if you’ve only got a sentence or two to deal with, as is the case with headlines and e-mail subject lines, then you’ll want to both:

  1. Objectify the situation so as not to emotionally overwhelm the reader, AND
  2. Put the reader in an offensive mindset

An excellent example of both these techniques in action was recently presented to me by a friend.  She asked me to explain why one headline outperformed another in a multivariate test conducted by a web optimization company.  And she was especially curious because the lesser-performing  headline used one of Sean D’souza’s (truly excellent) headline tactics of preferring question-based to statement-based headlines.  Here are the two headlines in question:

  • “Does a sexual offender live in your neighborhood?”
  • “Identify registered sex offenders living near you.”

As you can see, the first headline uses vivid Anglo-Saxon prose.  Besides the emotionally intense “sexual offender” the only word with more than one syllable is “neighborhood,” conjuring up a disturbing clash of images where some disarming, Mr. Rogers-like freak lurks next door, looking to harm your kids.  The question-based format grabs your attention for sure, but it’s a way-too-intense negative mental image that, coming at you as a question, knocks you back into a painfully defensive mindset.

Now compare that with the more objective sounding and Latinate “Identify registered sex offenders living near you.”  It’s far less emotional for sure, but more importantly the line itself functions as a call to action that puts the reader on the offensive – you’re going to identify those perverted, child-harming freaks and get control of the situation!  That leaves you with a much better feeling, doesn’t it?  Is it any wonder it outperformed the other headline?

So there you have it: when writing pain-focused headlines, objectify the situation and put the reader into an offensive mindset to keep them confident and eager to take action.

* Example paraphrased from a self defense book written by Jerry Peterson

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Comments (15)

  1. Wow great article! You’re very right about the two different ways of writing that envoke particular feelings… I never thought of a way of writing defensively and offensively. Good stuff. :)

  2. I am constantly changing our communications around here from a negative to a positive opening statement or question. You’ve given some great examples of what I am asking for – thanks!

  3. I’m wondering if guilt, as in reading copy and being reminded by the subject that I should be doing more than I am, qualifies as “pain based” or “negative mental images” copy? The key to knowing how to apply this lies with knowing your audience’s perception of the topic.

  4. David,

    I couldn’t agree more. You definitely need to be able to predict audience reactions, emotional drives, world views, etc. Still, some emotions and desires are universal; it’s not hard to predict how someone would react to a child molester moving next door.


  5. [...] talented Jeff Sexton asks if your headlines are offensive. Come on, you know you have to click through on that [...]

  6. Hi Jeff,
    This is an excellent article. I like your angle on the offensive mindset approach.

  7. Great article! I will think about it when I write my titles.

  8. [...] to conduct A/B and multivariate testing, you can’t effectively drive continued improvement.  An understanding of language nuance is important, but you’ll still want to take your copy changes to the “court of last resort” with [...]

  9. Interesting point.

    But I don’t know why. If all the headlines all put in a clutter of headlines, I still feel I will notice

    “Does a sexual offender live in your neighborhood?”


    I think it capture the attention and “force” the reader to read the copy carefully.

    The 2nd one in my opinion, does not hit the urgency button in me.

    Just my 2 cent.


  10. Tony,

    You are right that the first headline will grab attention more forcefully than the second one will. The question is, which one will drive better response rates?

    In other words, this is a situation where the reader has to click-through in order to read the rest of your copy. In that situation, you will want your headline to leave the reader in an “action-ready” mindset, and the second headline does that better than the first. This, in my opinion, is why the second headline outperformed the first, despite being less forcefull.


  11. Love the offense/defense point, but shouldn’t that make the title of your article: “Put your headlines on the offensive.” :-)

    I first found your article because by the title I thought it meant offensive as in “I’m offended by that.” It came up in a related search from my latest blog post.

    I’ll be keeping this in mind! Thanks.

  12. [...] talented Jeff Sexton asks if your headlines are offensive. Come on, you know you have to click through on that [...]

  13. Great strategy, Jeff. I’m constantly writing about how to stop child trafficking, and the stories can be so overwhelming that people tune out. You’ve reminded me to trumpet the line, “There IS something we can do about it.” I’m gonna go rewrite something right now–thanks!

    Diana Scimone
    Born to Fly International, Inc.

  14. [...] If you only know that headline “A” outperformed headline “B” without understanding WHY headline “A” worked best, it would be like Coach Leach only knowing that play X worked and play Y didn’t without [...]

  15. I like your article… very informative, another angle of content and headline creations. Thanks for sharing!

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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