R.I.P. Elvis Sightings and Exploding Preachers

Dateline: Miami, FL — The one-time juggernaut Amercian Media, Inc, announced that they will cease to publish the Weekly World News tabloid in August, after 28 years of faithfully delivering the most delightfully outrageous crap imagineable.

I, for one, will shed a tear and lift a toast.

When I began my career, one of my copywriting-skill-strengthening rituals included frequent jaunts to the local newsstand… where I would pick up a stack of headline-heaven magazines like Cosmo, Reader’s Digest, Playboy… and of course the Weekly World News, the National Enquirer, and any other tabloid rag that threatened to rattle my cage with weird, beautiful, titillating cover copy.

All the top copywriters I knew were devoted to these beastly publications. We never had to read further than the headlines on the front page, either, to get what we wanted — truly wicked phrases and Power Words artfully arranged to amuse, intrigue, delight and enrage.

In other words: Hooks.

Anyone who has heard me lecture knows that I urge everyone with advertising dreams to adopt the same reading rituals. If nothing else, you’ll learn about the power of finding a good angle.

When the tabloids strike a nerve with a killer headline, the publications fly off the shelf.

Boring heads, however, mean slow death from being ignored.

It was — and always will be — a fundamental lesson that even the most cocksure writer needs to keep being reminded of, over and over and over again.

The staff writers at WWN were “money scribes”… meaning, they were deadly serious about goosing the American unconscious with their “Vegan Vampire Attacks Trees”, “Man Bothered By Martian Telemarketers”, “Abe Lincoln Was A Woman” (and killed by a jealous Booth), etc., headlines. Because there was cash on the line.

They knew where the soft spots in people’s defenses were, and they knew how to skewer them.

Fabulous stuff.

For copywriters, there was no better lesson in delivering a verbal sucker punch that will not be ignored.

My favorites: “Boy Eats Own Head”, and “Preacher Explodes On Pulpit”. Super tight writing, almost minimalist haiku that tells a story you just gotta find out about.

I’ve been aiming at the very high bar set by those crazy headlines ever since I wrote my first ad with a real hook.

It’s an insight that can create fortunes: A great hook isn’t always pretty… but if it inflames curiosity and desire, then you’ve done your job.

With a great hook, the rest of your sales pitch is just mop-up duty.

Oh, you really didn’t want to buy that tabloid. It was just too embarrassing to be seen even picking one up. You couldn’t hide it in your cart, and even the most jaded check-out clerk would glance up to see what kind of person you were, buying this crap. (Or, just as often, they’d stop the register cold so they could finish reading the entire front cover. I always knew there was a writing lesson waiting when that happened.)

Standing in line at the grocery, I know you’ve snuck peeks at it, maybe picked an issue up if no one was watching… but buy a copy?

Did anyone actually plunk down cash for the Weekly World News?

Yep. In its glory days, hundreds of thousands of people paid good money for the ol’ WWN every week (and its sister publication the National Enquirer had weekly sales in the millions). Millions more ogled it while in line, or stole friend’s copies.

More than a few famous writers have copies framed on their office walls.

Ah, but all printed publications are having a rough time of it, now that the Web has won the attention-deficit wars.

And so, we bid adieu to probably the best-written trash in publishing history.

We hardly knew ya, kid.

You shall be missed.

I’m sure there will soon be sightings of Elvis reading a classic issue, perhaps while strolling through crop circles in the shape of Bat Boy…

John Carlton
www.carltoncoaching.com

P.S. Small bit of good news — apparently, the WWN will contine to exist in some form online. I hope that’s true… but trips to the grocery store will never be the same…

P.P.S. Got a favorite headline? Leave it in the comments section, will ya?

14 Responses to R.I.P. Elvis Sightings and Exploding Preachers

  1. Ken says:

    “Terrifying Discovery: Swedish Scientists Invent Reversible Body”

    I grew up reading this crap. My mom religiously read ALL of them. Every week. I unwittingly began my copywriting training when I was 9.

  2. Donna says:

    Okay – I admit doing a “little” peeking at the checkout . . . and stealing a friends copy . . . oh and walking around the store with it so I wouldn’t HAVE to buy it.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Peeking? Nothing doing. When we were teenagers, my best friend and I made countless, religious late-night runs to the all-night grocery store for the WWN and then to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a squeal. It was like going to church. This was Maine in the late 80′s, so if you think there was nothing to do except freebase on pine needles and drive by Stephen King’s house in the middle of the night, you’re right. And we were both rather goody-goody (read: scared) back then.

    Anyway, back to WWN. The headlines got us in the door but it was always Ed Anger that sealed the deal. And it WAS good copywriting training. I can say this definitively, as already in my so-far short stint as a copywriter I’ve shamelessly nipped his lines for use in a sales piece twice, I think, and suggested one more to a colleague, who used it not knowing the source (I let him in on the joke later).

    I feel blessed that we inhaled so much of the stuff back in Eddie Clontz’ heyday. And I was fascinated. How did they do it? I so very much wanted to sneak down to Florida to be a fly on the wall, if but for a day, to find out.

    I thought of Bee (said best friend, who remains as such) first when I heard the news. And then I thought of you. I almost emailed to let you know but then decided that was probably too weird, given that I’ve only met you once at a seminar. (And of course I figured you’d have seven zillion people breaking the bad news, too.)

    A tasty scotch for the WWN!

  4. taymastery says:

    John,

    It’s Ming here… been a while since I last emailed you enquiring about the news of Gary’s demise…

    Anyway, here are some headlines I crafted. They are ALL MINE. I swear to god I didn’t rip it off from anywhere. They are THAT brilliant (and I don’t know if it’s an offence to tout)

    “Man Apologises To 145 Singaporeans Who Became Unemployed After Attending His ‘Killer’ Moneymaking Seminar!”

    Without begging, borrowing or stealing…
    “How Much Money Can You Make In 10 Minutes?”

    “Who Else Wants To Be Amongst The First 100 Internet Marketing Multi-Millionaires?”

    “How Much MORE Money Do You Want To Make In 2007?”

    “How Long Do You Spend In Front Of Your Computer?”

    If anyone wants to rip them off, just acknowledge that you got your ideas from me

    Hey John, if you think those headlines are great, lavish me with an email compliment. I know I am being ballsy with someone who has no record of sugarcoating others… but HECK… worth a try

    The ‘ballsy’ boy,

    Ming (Taymastery)
    The 15 year old Tycoon

  5. taymastery says:

    btw john, here’s another headline that will make you drool…

    “11,600 Millionaires In Singapore

    Why Aren’t YOU One Of Them?”

    I grabbed that headline from an ad in one of my local newspapers

  6. This one sentence needs a revisit…

    “With a great hook, the rest of your sales pitch is just mop-up duty.”

    Brilliant John!

    It’s baffling to me how many sales letters are totally missing a good “hook” (some of mine included).

    My buddy and I have been working on a damn hook for a whole week, and I still don’t think we’ve got it yet. Obviously, the client isn’t exactly laying hooks out on a platter either. But we’ll find something.

    And truth be told, digging up hooks is actually kinda fun if you got a wacky sense of humor and just enjoy the random brainstorm.

    Anyways, here’s the headline that makes me want to read more…

    World Famous Street-Fighter Will Give You A

    FREE GUN…

    Just To Prove He Can Take It Away From You Bare-Handed
    As Easy As Candy From A Baby!

    Kinda tough to ignore that one.

    I’m not sure my favorite, but the FREE GUN has gotta be
    in my top 10.

  7. JackG says:

    Ah. Bat Boy. He made my college years more fun, and even inspired my most interesting college experience (well, academically speaking, anyway).

    It was the 80′s, and I had a mythology class. Took it so I wouldn’t have to do much work. I took that bad attitude a bit too far, and didn’t even show up very often. The prof didn’t even know my name by the end of the semester.

    Anyway, half of our grade was based on the ‘term paper’. I use that term loosely, as I started doing my research for it 3 days before it was due, and wrote it during the last 36 hours.

    How did I choose my subject? It went something like this. “Oh shit. I am OUT of time. I need to write a term paper. No time to buy one (the Internet was not available to us normal people yet). What was lying around in my off-campus apartment? A semester’s worth of Weekly World News. At the height of Bat Boy fever. That became my term paper.

    I got into my zone, big time. It was nothing short of earth-shatteringly brilliant. The professor, when handing back the graded papers, made a point of asking in front of the whole class “Who wrote the Bat Boy paper? That was one of the best papers I have ever read!” – mine was the only one she asked about.

    As stories like this often go, it has a tragic ending. The professor, for some reason I never quite comprehended, took the papers back after handing them out, and told us if we wanted them to come back to the department office in a couple of weeks where they would be made available. Of course, my life was filled with far too many important college life things to bother. I missed my opportunity, and never got it back.

    I wrote it on my roommate’s Mac. I figured I could get it from him during the next school year. That summer, he was murdered in a senseless act of gang initiation.

  8. I’d often buy it when on biz trips.

    “The most fun you can have for a few coins,” is what I always said!

  9. Jeffery Ellis says:

    One of my favorites from the ‘Globe’:

    “Boy Trapped in Refridgerator Eats Own Foot”.

  10. My favorite from the Weekly World News:

    Giant Bats Attack Plane! (accompanied by visuals of mean, giant plane-sized bats flying next to the plane)

    I had to buy it and give it as a gift to someone.

  11. Angel says:

    Hi John,

    My favorite WWN headline of all time is:

    “Statue Gets Angry And Walks Out Of Church”

    I’ll really miss that paper. I’d been buying it since I was about 8 years old. It was always fun and entertaining.

    Angel

  12. Jason says:

    Hi John,

    This is off-topic. So, feel free to delete this post.

    I know you’re a friend and business partner of Mr. Gary Halbert. Thus I think I have an obligation to inform you that one of Gary’s ads has been copied word-for-word.

    It’s one of the top sellers in Clickbank right now. The URL is:

    http://www.doublingstocks.com

    The sales letter on that website is the exact, verbatim copy
    of Gary Halbert’s ‘Options Hotline’ ads for Agora.

    The URL for Gary’s ads is:

    http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com/Agora%20Options%20Hotline/07-28-05%20Letter%20With%20Table.pdf

    Maybe you can let Gary’s family know. I tried to contact them at Gary’s email address, but got no response.

    Best regards,
    Jason

  13. mark grove says:

    Here’s a headline fer ya’ John.

    Jimi Hendrix is not really dead and plays with BB King in New York Gig”

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