“The Tabloid Stuff Bumps The Numbers”

Listen up, people.

Homework assignment for all marketers here.

Here’s the story: For eons, almost every top copywriter willing to spill secrets about writing killer ads has revealed a common sordid fact — the headlines of the tabloids like the National Enquirer are among the best study materials around.

It’s a standard part of my speech at seminars. Check out the tabs. You’ll discover what America is really interested in.

Tabloids still outsell “real” newspapers and magazines by astronomical numbers. It’s not even a contest.

And the headline writers pay very close attention to what boosts sales. They are wired into the national psyche.

You’d have to be nuts to skip this mini-education on word-to-sales truth. So what if your spouse is embarrassed when you pick up the latest Weekly World News (the one with the “Cannibal fetus chews through Mom” headline).

No one ever said advertising was nice work. Sometimes you end up facing dark and disturbing insight into the mind of your fellow man.

Ah, the power of words.

Other verteran writers who cop to scouring the tabs: Gary Halbert, Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jeff Paul, Dan Kennedy, David Deutsch, Michel Fortin… the list goes on forever.

And yet… rookie writers remain skeptical.

Like we’re kidding them or something. “Ha, ha, ha, you top writers are all alike! So quit with the tabloid jokes already!”

All right. Don’t believe me.

Instead, believe the top television shows in existence.

There’s a killer article in the current New Yorker magazine (8/8-8/15) by Ken Auletta — “The Dawn Patrol”, all about the war of the morning network shows Today and Good Morning America. I won’t rehash the article here — it won’t kill you to go buy an actual magazine for once in your virtual life — but the candid truths revealed are just gold for savvy marketers.

The audience for these shows are 70% female… just like most general markets in the economy… and thus, there are “rules” that must be followed for success. These rules aren’t made up — they were realized, after fifty years of testing, and paying VERY close attention.

See, these morning shows earn hundreds of millions in ad revenue each year. They carry the water for the networks.

So the producers leave their egos and their “common sense” out of all decisions.

They do what they do because they see that it works. They count up the ratings, and test everything in painful detail.

So, what works? First — as I’ve been saying for years now — it’s all about personality. The weatherman Al Roker’s job has very little to do with the actual weather. He’s there to be a friendly, non-threatening guy who can talk nice to women about how great the day is gonna be. Regardless of the storm outside.

Second — and the reason I’m bothering you with all this — is a quote by a former co-anchor Harry Smith: The minute-by-minute viewer response monitors show that “the tabloid stuff bumps the numbers.”

Not hard news. Celebrity, slander, silliness and outrageous social behavior. The run-away bride, the lost kids, the latest blonde murder investigation, Michael Jackson’s trial… the stories closer to UFO landings than earnest Senate committee reports.

That’s what opens the profit pumps.

And yes, it works for male-dominated markets just as well. Even your staid old CEO perks up when a celebrity walks by (or self-destructs on the national stage).

Now, just as I warn seminar audiences… this doesn’t mean you need to start referring to Bat Boy or Sasquach in your next online posting.

What it means is that… again… the best written headlines are NOT boring, pedantic recitations of the facts.

Rather… the best are attention-jarring wake-up calls to your prospect’s brain.

There’s an old saw in marketing that goes like this: First, sell them what they want. You can sell them what they need later.

What that means is simple — it’s a much easier path to offer something your prospect is already predisposed to like. Trying to educate him on why he needs what you have is a losing proposition.

However, once you’ve established that you can deliver what he wants, he will begin to trust you. And you can THEN start the process of working him into the more complex relationship where you give him what you clearly know he needs.

It’s the same with headlines. You have a split second to get his attention, and you won’t do it by trying to educate him.

Instead, go in through the already-open door in his brain — the door that is ALWAYS open to anything fun, or gossipy, or titillating. Or that makes him do the “whaaaaaaa?” double-take.

It’s the fastest way to bump the numbers.

John Carlton

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  • John says:


    I liked this post, it’s gotten me to pull out all of the old headline clippings I keep in my desk… (unfotunately, in Australia, I don’t have access to the National Enquirer, so I make do with Ralph, Cosmo etc.)


  • vic kally says:

    One of a favorites for headlines is “Good Housekeeping” magazine. Their covers always have a “how to” or a “secrets” headline. Problems of all sorts are solved for the $2.50 cover price. Below I posted a link (that you’ll have to copy and paste into your browser since i don’t think it’s hot) to the August 2005 cover so you can see for yourself if you’ve never looked at a “Good Housekeeping” cover. (“Ladies Home Journal and “Redbook” covers aren’t bad either.)

    Get Out Of Debt
    Fast Solutions, p.63…

    New Cures for Fibroids…

    Bad Service?
    How To Complain And Get Results…

    15 Quick Dinners For The Grill…

    Too Tough On Yourself?
    Learn To Go Easy…

    Healthy Foods Kids Will Eat…

    Lose Big!
    Diet Secrets From Real Women
    No Surgery, No Fads…


  • mark says:

    That article told me exactly what us shitheads need to know. Figure out what they want,not what we think they want.

    That’s why I decided to do a friggin’ survey on what kind of equipment musicians buy the most.

    Thanks man

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