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Are Your Headlines Offensive?

Posted By Jeff Sexton On October 9, 2008 @ 9:58 am In Copywriting,Improving Conversion,Persuasive Online Copywriting,psychology | 15 Comments

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 [1].  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 [2].

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 [3] 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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URL to article: http://www.grokdotcom.com/2008/10/09/are-your-headlines-offensive/

URLs in this post:

[1] read my previous material on dealing with pain-based copy and negative mental images: http://www.grokdotcom.com/2007/07/23/copy-perspective-monday-then-vs-now-me-them-or-you/

[2] dial up the intensity of the final, positive mental image: http://www.grokdotcom.com/2007/07/25/is-vw-doing-it-wrong/

[3] Sean D’souza’s (truly excellent) headline tactics: http://www.psychotactics.com/

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