There's No Defense for Cute Headlines

By Howard Rauch
President, Editorial Solutions Inc.

One thing that makes life interesting in our field is opposite schools of thought on various aspects of editing practice. Those on both sides of any issue will argue vigorously in defense of their position. Lately, I’ve encountered a spate of grumbling during discussions about what headlines and decks are supposed to do. Maybe I’m part of a shrinking minority. You be the judge!

The point of contention is “cute” headlines. These usually take the form of three-word pun-like efforts. Are they amusing? Yes. Do readers of business magazines leaf through our issue in hopes of being amused? I doubt it.

Cute headlines rarely convey a threat, benefit or any other clear form of reader value. Hopefully, an accompanying deck will clarify the article’s instructive value. Even so, the preceding three-word head is a wasted opportunity.

I’ll admit it; I can’t say anything useful in three words. My headlines must highlight a specific example of instructive value to be found in an article. I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone. Quite often, cute headlines are a product of design. During a competitive analysis project involving industrial magazines, I discovered that my client’s competitor did a terrific job writing full-benefit headlines. Meanwhile, our three-word headlines were the pits. The following conversation occurred during a brainstorming session:

ME: The opposition is clobbering you in the headline-writing department.
EDITORS: We know.
ME: These mini-heads you write are killing you. Do you like three-word headlines?
EDITORS: No. We hate them!
ME: So why do you keep using them?
EDITORS: The art director likes short heads. It’s part of the redesign.
ME: Oh??!! Have you ever thought about changing over to something you prefer?
EDITORS: Duh!!!!

Recently, another client sent me an impassioned e-mail pointing out that a new design calling for cute heads was copied from layouts used by popular newsstand magazines. I was not sympathetic. Perhaps our readers expect a greater immediacy in terms of value as opposed to what they’re seeking from mass media.

One more thought pertaining to urgency. My mentors always stressed the importance of loading headlines with hot numbers. Can you work hot numbers into a three-word head? Maybe. But in some recent headline reviews involving 50 magazines and hundreds of headlines, I found only two that used numbers. Another headline/deck snafu is overlap. In this case, both elements convey the same message, as opposed to the deck expanding on the headline focus.

Cute heads are one of seven obstructions to informative headline writing. Perhaps that’s a subject for another blog post.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. You can contact him directly at

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Here's a blog post with a contrarian point of view:
# posted by Blogger Martha Spizziri : September 18, 2008 at 12:58 PM
You never turn off someone by clearly stating a benefit. There simply is no substitute.

With cute headlines I often find myself wondering what the heck an article is about. I scratch my head in wonderment at why an editor doesn't want me and so many other people, who don't have time to figure it out, to read that story.

I agree with Howard 100%, as I often do.

Robin Sherman
Editorial & Design Services

Look for me on
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : September 19, 2008 at 10:17 AM
B2B pubs are in competition for readers' time. If a cute headline works, use it with support from photos, cutlines, decks and call-outs.

Can't say anything in 3 words? Reminds me of the Calvin Coolidge story.
A man says to the notoriously taciturn prexy, "I bet I can get you to say more than 3 words."
Silent Cal: "You lose."

Jim Carper, In-Store Marketing Institute, Skokie IL
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : September 24, 2008 at 6:07 PM
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