The Story Of The Headline

“On an average, five times as many people read the headline, as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

 -David Ogilvy

Yes, we just took the most cliched route to start a conversation about the most important aspect of any advertising communication –  the headline. But then, when the master has himself said something that has been followed religiously (we would all like to think so) by every single copywriter in the industry – across the world – why not just stick to it, at least to set the context.

Okay, so we’re going to talk about headlines (no surprises there). But because enough has already been written about how to write a ‘good one’ by people who have shaped advertising, we’ll do something different here. We’ll take a look at the journey of a headline, from then till now. Why? Well, it’s simple. While the motive of a headline or the task assigned to it has remained the same (it should sell), everything around it has changed drastically.

“The changing scenarios have had an extensive impact on headlines, and the art (more of a process) of writing them.”

No, we’re not yet talking about the evolving cultures. That’s just too vast and complex. For now, we’re sticking to a relatively smaller area of a transformed advertising ecosystem. From evolving media to the available space and from baffling (either too big or too small) budgets to declining attention spans, everything has undergone a colossal change in the past few decades. So, while every word from David Ogilvy’s statement holds true even today, the changing scenarios have had an extensive impact on headlines, and the art (more of a process) of writing them. Let us see and understand how headlines have evolved over the years.


This ad by David Ogilvy for Rolls Royce in 1957 is legendary. With the amount of body copy in it, one might confuse it with an advertorial. But this was the trend back then – ads that were copy-rich. Now ignore the body copy (It’s hard to do so, but still). Just look at the headline. It’s a really long headline, but manages to get the reader hooked to the ad. And this is just one of the ads that Rolls Royce did back then, as a part of the campaign, where most of the captions were really long. It’s interesting to understand the reasons why such long captions worked back then.

“The headline used to be entirely different from the campaign line. In fact, many headlines were used to reinforce the campaign line.”

  1. Lesser advertising – In the 50s and 60s, there were fewer brands across different sectors in the market, which meant lesser clutter and ads, for the buyer/reader to look at.
  2. Print medium as the first point of contact – While television had started entering homes, newspapers led the way in communication. The medium itself supported this form of writing because of the available space.
  3. Lesser visuals – As compared to today’s day and age, access to a ready visual library was weak, because of lack of technology, which meant more scope and space for writing.

The biggest takeaway from this is the fact that the headline is entirely different from the campaign line.

While this was the scenario in the US and the West, Indian advertising was still in its nascent stages. As a result, Indian print ads rarely witnessed this ‘phase’ of headlines.

THE 80s AND 90s SHOW

By now, television had well and truly taken over print as the primary medium of communication (The Bold and the Beautiful, Nukkad and Circus were a part of people’s conversations). At the same time, brands from certain segments continued to reach out to the audience through print ads. All this had an impact on the nature and style of headlines. What stood out was:

  1. Crisp headlines – The advent of “less is more” philosophy impacted both – the headlines and their length.
  2. Bigger images – From a copy-centric ad layout, the visuals and words started sharing equal space. The visuals became more dominating. A copy-driven ad with a classic headline became a special occasion feature.
  3. The punchline had arrived – It was observed that the campaign line inadvertently became the headline for the ad. Gone were the days of different headlines leading to one brand line. The punchline started calling the shots.
  4. Headlines became emotional – Instead of focusing on direct product benefits, a more emotional packaging emerged through the headlines.

Inspired by Neil French’s work in Singapore, like this ad for, even Indian advertisers took a more daring approach to writing headlines. But, this was restricted to a niche, urban audience.

The dominant advertising, and hence the headlines, became more emotional and crisp. More importantly, the focus had already shifted to the television sets, where headlines were heard, not read.


“In the age of 140 characters, the headlines for print advertising have been through a lot (both literally and figuratively).”

Over the past decade, the world has been taken over by the power of internet that has connected everyone, everywhere. This has led to more and more brands reaching out to more and more people. Print continues to lose its importance – at least in an advertising sense – as brands find out newer ways to connect with the audience (It is used more as a tool to complete the promise of a 360-degree media plan). While television is dominant, the internet and its different tools now offer more profitable advertising platforms. In the age of 140 characters, the headlines for print advertising have been through a lot (both literally and figuratively).

  1. Lesser space – As many brands jostle for space across media, the available space has reduced significantly; and the length of the headline.
  2. An over-burdened audience – As social media takes over the lives of the people, they are left over-burdened by the content being circulated around. At times, this has even led to print ads being devoid of a headline.
  3. Reading, a dying habit – As visuals capture the mind space and films become easily executable and accessible, reading as a habit, is on a decline.
  4. The hashtag phenomenon – Conversations now subscribe to brevity with hashtags and emoticons taking over words and sentences.

“The journey of a headline subtly captures the evolving cultures that we’ve all been part of, over the years.”

If you look at it, this journey of a headline subtly captures the evolving cultures that we’ve all been part of, over the years. It shows how our tastes have changed, habits have evolved, and even the preferences have undergone a sea-change.

But the one thing that remains constant is that the headline is still 80 cents of a dollar. A good one does a lot of good for the brand. And a great one; well we all know what it has done to us, so many times.

Amey Pendse is an engineer by qualification and a copywriter – not a writer – by profession. He likes to keep it simple – in ideas, and in writing. He essentially thinks and writes in Hindi and English and has a keen interest in writing radio ads and TVCs. With 6 years of experience, Amey is a Senior Copywriter at Setu.

18. May 2018 by admin
Categories: Copywriters Desk |

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