R.I.P. Elvis Sightings & Exploding Preachers

 

Thursday, 2:52pm
Reno, NV
He was a one-eyed, one horn, flying purple people eater…” (Sheb Wooley)

Howdy.

In the spirit of screwing off as much as possible this fine July, I’m replenishing the blog with another oldie-but-goodie post from the archives.

So you’ve got something good to chew on, while I wander off to the beach to get pounded by merciless surf and fried by an uncaring sun. You know: Good times.

Anyway, I love meandering through the archives here… especially when I find a post that still packs some mojo.

Here’s a nice short one from ’07, on the non-scientific process of finding great hooks for your headlines. At the time, I was bummed that a favorite newsstand shock-rag was ending its run… however, the good news is that WWN is still alive and kicking (just like Elvis) online. (Today’s headline: “Saturn Ready To Explode!” Um… okay.)

The ability to find a way to hook readers (and drag them into your story) is what separates the Big Dog writers from the wannabe’s. And creating hooks (especially from otherwise boring raw material) is an art form that needs to be developed. It’s not a skill that comes with your standard brain equipment.

Here’s some insight to how the best veteran copywriters do it, slightly edited, via the Archive Time Machine, from July ’07:

Dateline: Miami, FL — The one-time juggernaut Amercian Media, Inc, just 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… and drag you kicking and screaming into the story.

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 no matter how unexciting your product is.

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. (My ad “The Amazing Secrets of a One-Legged Golfer” has been running steadily for almost 20 years now, in print mags, in the mail, and now online. Just to illustrate how powerful and lasting a brain-grabbing hook can be. It’s not the product — it’s the ad. And, specifically, the headline 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. Just like the actual stories in the tabloids seldom came close to fulfilling the promise in the headline.

Oh, you really didn’t want to buy that tabloid while you were in a public store. 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, mouth agape. 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. Rumor is, it outsold every other mag on the rack, consistently.

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…

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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 you remember (or have framed on your wall)? Leave it in the comments section, will ya? Also, all other relevant ranting is always welcome…

42 Responses to R.I.P. Elvis Sightings & Exploding Preachers

  1. corey says:

    I Love going to the Grocery store because I always come away with some great ideas for hooks. Those guys are geniuses.

  2. corey says:

    I think the modern day iteration of these mags is The Onion…guys are just killers. I admit to being trolled by them…more than once.

    • John Carlton says:

      Yes, The Onion is good. So are the Comedy Channel shows “The Daily Show” and what’s-his-face who follows it. Their headlines are very hooky, tailored for a specific audience (smart progressives). What sets the WWN apart is its blatant appeal to the worst side of our human nature — the need to rubber-neck an accident, indulge in cruel gossip, and to be titillated with cheap stories. A good copywriter will take that approach, and goose it up (or down) to the appropriate level of his intended audience. A good headline (or subject line in an email) wakes you up, and brings you into the story. And, still, no one does it better on a nation-wide level than WWN. (Yes, lawyers, scholars and professionals devour it… for “fun”, mostly, but also because once you PEEK at the headlines, it’s hard to get away…)

  3. Great post, John.

    Would you care to share your thoughts about hooks for B2B? I realize they’re still people but do you do anything different? Do you find stories work in B2B copy?

    • John Carlton says:

      I talk about this in the Simple Writing System… basically, the problems B2B writers have is they start out believing they (a) have to be really polite, like being at someone else’s wedding, and (b) they need to write in very proper English, because they’re addressing a corporate “culture”. I think, in most cases, both attitudes are dead wrong. At the end of the day, you’re either gonna connect with ONE human being (who has the ability to write a check to buy your crap), or you’re not gonna make a sale. There are exceptions, like dealing with department budgets, and just presenting the best deal for the managers. But in my admittedly small B2B experience, I’ve bucked the trend and gone for connecting with a human who could make a decision (in others, VP or higher)… using “regular” language. And when I felt it was worth the risk, I got downright randy — I talked to them as a golfing buddy or drinking buddy might, not as some vendor come a’begging on one knee.

      Again: The sale will be made when one human (you) convinces another human (the guy who can write a check) that your deal is must-have. Gun to my head, I’m unleashing personality and talking peer-to-peer as much as possible. That’s how I know bonding can take place. Does this help?

      • Absolutely it helps. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Your answer was about what I expected it to be but I admit to having been a bit jaded with the perceptions you talk about.

  4. Tony says:

    Man I miss the WWN!

  5. Chris says:

    Nice John.

    I got a good email from the Obama campaign today that was interesting…

    Interested to hear your thoughts.

    Saw the subject and had to find out what it was about:

    Subject: I will be outspent

    Friend –

    I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far.

    I’m not just talking about the super PACs and anonymous outside groups — I’m talking about the Romney campaign and the Republicans themselves. Those outside groups just add even more to the underlying problem.

    The Romney campaign and the Republicans have recently raised more than us, and the math isn’t hard to understand: Through the primaries, we raised almost three-quarters of our money from donors giving less than $1,000, while Mitt Romney’s campaign raised more than three-quarters of its money from individuals giving $1,000 or more.

    And, again, that’s not including the massive outside spending by super PACs and front groups funneling up to an additional billion dollars into ads trashing me, you, and everything we believe in.

    We can be outspent and still win — but we can’t be outspent 10 to 1 and still win.

    So thanks for getting onboard for this election — now, join the 2.2 million Americans who have already chipped in to build our campaign.

    Today, I’m asking you to help us close the gap. Donate now.

    This isn’t about me or the outcome of one election.

    This election will be a test of the model that got us here. We’ll learn whether it’s still true that a grassroots campaign can elect a president — whether ordinary Americans are in control of our democracy in the face of massive spending.

    I believe we can do this. When all of us chip in what we can, when we can, we are the most powerful force in politics.

    Donate today:

    Thank you,

    Barack

    • John Carlton says:

      I’ve seen mail from all political camps. Both Gary Halbert and I have been approached by political machines in the past, because their kind of direct mail appeals demand high-end hooks. This particular one from the Obama camp seems extremely weak — they’re assuming that the reader is as shocked about being “outspent” as they are… but that relies on the reader understanding media-buys during campaigns. You NEVER want your hook to be a “two stager”, which requires the reader to stop and think, or (worse) put two-and-two together to understand what you’re talking about.

      I have no idea who’s writing Obama’s direct mail, but they should be fired. I haven’t seen a recent Romney one… and, again, I don’t want this blog to get swamped with bullshit political troll action, so I’m not gonna get into anything more than the surface of this: The way political ideas are presented, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

      You have two lists, btw, in politics: Your rabid core, to whom you write the really outrageous stuff, and the outlying circles of people who may or may not contribute. Same with charities. And, now that I think of it, most large marketers…

      • Chris says:

        Yeah I almost didn’t post that because I was not interested in giving any one an opportunity for a political soap box but was interested in your thoughts on this.

        So the question is…did you EVER work for any of those “machines” or were you and Gary too rebellious?

        • John Carlton says:

          Gary did some consulting, long ago… and regretted it, since he thinks he played a bit of a role in turning political direct mail into something nastier, yet more effective than it was. But it was such a vast effort — both Karl Rove and his mentor, Vigary, come from direct response mailing backgrounds, and learned their persuasion craft well. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent direct mail specialist working with the Dems.

          I’ve been a political junkie my entire adult life, and no party would have me (or allow me near their donor lists) — I’d piss them off on critical points, and they’re already both pissing me off on points I consider important. I can see myself maybe getting into the fray down the road… but right now, I’m not passionate about any candidate, don’t wanna run myself, and am content to watch shows like The Newsroom and Veep to get my visceral jollies… with one eye on the nattering class, of course…

  6. Morris says:

    Best Headline I ever read? It’s gotta be this one from back in the 60′s:
    “Stone Gets Thrown by Microphone”

    Yep, one of the Rolling Stones in concert got too close to the mic stand – his guitar strings touched it and he got massively zapped!

    Maybe not catchy, but look how many years I’ve remembered it!

  7. alan says:

    We have before and after testimonials from clients that give me lots of ammo for this. I love this stuff and came up with 3 in about 30 seconds. Now, how will they play on Google Ads bwahaha..

    Thanks for the (semi-evil) poke John.

    • John Carlton says:

      Let us know how it goes with Google. As long as you’re doing it right, they should have no beef.

      It’s funny — I just got a note from someone who’s unsubscribing to this blog because this post was “lame”. It’s stunning to witness people so totally not getting the value of this kind of admittedly-also-fun insight. So, thanks for reminding us that this is actionable stuff…

  8. Rob says:

    I can’t believe no one has said “Headless Body in Topless Bar” yet.

  9. Harold Ward says:

    Hey John, good write up as usual. Now I see where you get some of your best stuff; at the grocery store. With
    magazines like the National Equirer for headlines and hooks. Have a great day.

  10. Fazila Patel says:

    Hi ,
    Can you give another example other than ur famous golf advert, I have no affinity for the sport.
    (apart from trigger got himself into trouble in the woods again)

  11. Sylvana says:

    Bahahaha!! –And this is exactly why I changed my home page away from msn.com. Those guys used to waste the first hour of my morning. I couldn’t help myself and was sucked in every single day. Awesomesauce stuff. And now, oh yes, I can go back and wallow in the joy of those headlines with the excuse that’s it’s RESEARCH! Woohoo, thanks John!

  12. Sylvana says:

    Damn, r.i.p. to whoever was writing those headlines for msn.com.au :o(
    I just went on over, and nooo it’s not the same!

  13. Carl Picot says:

    Aliens Passing Gas are the Cause of the Hole in the Ozone Layer!

    This was from a UK Tabloid – we have The Sun and The Star here … can’t remember which one off the top of my head but I remember the headline :)

    Great post John … I heard am interview you did once that mentioned the ‘one legged golfer’ as well as the ‘boy eating his own head’ and the ‘exploding preacher!’ .. great stuff as always and a compelling listen :)

    I wonder if we will see anything that beats these in the future?? LOL

    thanks

    Carl

  14. Finally, an excuse to by National Enquirer and Cosmo.

    In all seriousness, I pay a lot of attention to those mags when I am at the checkout line or the book store. Sure, I might look a little creepy peeping in the women’s section, but I can’t resist great headlines.

  15. Rick Berkel says:

    Certainly is the best part of going grocery shopping…

    I love to read the headlines on cosmopolitan magazines.

  16. Sean says:

    Great post John.

    I love the “Vegan Vampire Attacks Trees”

    Here’s 3 famous headlines from the British rags:

    The Sunday Sport printed:

    “Statue of Elvis Found on Mars”
    and
    “World War 2 Bomber Found On Moon”

    Probably the most infamous of them all was front page of The Sun 1986:

    “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”

    Fab.

    Sean

    • John Carlton says:

      I remember the Elvis one. The US tabs picked up the story from the Brits, I reckon. And I hear that Bat Boy is still their top draw, online…

    • Orestes says:

      Sean,

      Thanks to you I did twist the “Vegan Vampire Attack Tree”
      into a cool hook for an ad….let´s see how it works :-)

      Orestes

  17. Ben says:

    Just took some out of my swipe file:

    HE STALKS SERIAL KILLERS AND YOU THOUGHT YOUR JOB WAS HARD

    IF HER BED COULD TALK! Women’s wild sex confessions

    Warning! 7 Lies All Women Tell Men

    5″5 white kid dunks on 10 feet

    Banned in Holleywood

    -> Thanks for the advice, it really raised my standard for finding top headlines

  18. Steve says:

    My favorite headline by Weekly World News was
    “Statue Of Elvis Found On Mars!”
    That one KILLED me! I bought it! Both the store clerk and I had a good laugh over THAT one!
    I’ll never forget it…

  19. ken c says:

    I like Bill Jayme’s classic Psychology Today headline:

    “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?”

    I don’t know why that’s stuck in my mind for so many years, but it’s one of those “makes you go hmm” ones.

    -k

  20. Mark L - SWS says:

    Hi John,
    You told me 12 years ago to start reading the National Enquirer. You gave me solid reasons to do it:
    Hooks a plenty
    8th grade reading level I should shoot for…
    Mind-bending insanity
    “Preacher’s head explodes” was just business as usual at the churches my parents went to. We always had a new one every week. Very confusing…
    Funny, I picked one up last week. I’ve never forgotten your advice. I haven’t seen “Bat Boy” in awhile. Maybe he’s chillin in The Keys.
    The “One-legged golfer” shoot would make a good movie script. The talent is a perfect part for Bill Murray!
    Keep rockin, Mark

  21. Michelle says:

    Who would have thought, only 5 years ago, the impact that online mags would have – you just don’t want to miss headlines like those!!

  22. mike says:

    IF anyone is interested….the gold can be located here –

    http://books.google.com/books/serial/ISSN:0199574X?rview=1&lr=&sa=N&start=0

    Nice reminder John

  23. Jennie Jennie says:

    Dick Kulpa was one of the headline genius at AMI and WW and damn good headline.

    He also created Bat Boy; I think he turned it into a broadway play, if I recall.

    Also Kulpa was the eccentric created of Cracked Magazine, and he made no excuses for it.

  24. Orestes says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the great post and the advices for the hooks for B2B….really can´t believe that one who said this post was “lame”.But sadly some people don´t know how to be grateful but I am and always will be.

    Btw I alredy picked one cool hook!

    Thanks again for all your sharing!

    Blessings!
    Orestes

  25. RStevens says:

    Ok….not sure which US tabloid but swear I saw it…..Toaster Goes Berserk – Eats Dwarf or a UK tabloid -
    Woman Gives Birth to Twin Fish (she was breast feeding 2 mackerels!)

    Great post John gotta go get my National Enquirer…..for Aunt Minnie of course….

  26. Robinsh says:

    I can’t believe that only a single article of your blog gave a me lot of point to note down and apply at my own blogs to attract the readers and their comments like you are enjoying.

    Thanks for creating this wonderful article.

  27. Sean says:

    Thanks, John… Great post!

    Headlines that shake up people’s consciousness always work and the fact that I’ve had this post bookmarked on my “to read” list for almost three months due solely to the headline is testimony to that fact.

    I can’t believe we haven’t seen more “Attack of the Killer Penguins” or “Panda Mauls Local Marketer” headlines from the SEO community given the material Google gives us to work with! :)

    Keep ‘em comin’!

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