The Internet is Killing the Headline

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If I titled this post 11 facts you didn’t know about headlines, or I was writing the headline to this post… you’ll never believe what happened next, it might have gotten more clicks. A lot more.

Headlines in these styles are notoriously popular, courtesy of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. The first kind even has a name, listicle, which to me conjures up the image of an underdeveloped testicle. Buzzfeed didn’t invent this, but made a business model out of it. Everyone is doing it now – we even get meta-variations like this Wired piece called 5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK. But, at least, a listicle headline contains information about the article itself. It just offers it in a slightly sleazy way.

Upworthy, on the other hand, uses a strategy known as curiosity gap: it tells you as little as possible about content and promises to surprise you, demanding a click. Examples include: 9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact (Pageviews: 6.3 million), Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear (Pageviews: 4.6 million), and His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick. (Pageviews: 4.9 million).
If you never visited Upworthy, you’d never guess that it’s actually a social issues website with a strong liberal leaning – that I almost completely share – because clickbait usually goes hand in hand with the trivial. They use this trick to attract people to content that would otherwise get little traffic: Upworthy’s tagline is Things that matter. Pass’em on.

The rise of these viral tactics highlights a radical change in the role of the headline. In a newspaper, it has a function. It must inform and attract. A perfect headline is elegant and inevitable, and can not only make or break an article, but alter its perception in the reader. But on the web, there’s a war for your attention. Words are weapons, and the headline is a battlefield. The journalistic headline has become much closer in functionality to the advertising headline – “the ticket on the meat”, as David Ogilvy defined it – which you use “to flag down readers for the kind of product you’re advertising”.

This is the most famous headline in print-advertising history:

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That’s an underdog story, in fifteen words. Notice the peculiar use of the hyphen.
You don’t care it isn’t plausible, it just draws you in. It was written 60 years ago to sell correspondence music courses and it’s still being plagiarized by copywriters today.

Headlines used to be longer. In 1932, before the dangers of radioactivity became obvious, you could buy Radithor, a “medicine” of water and radium which was advertised to give you “perpetual sunshine”. One famous athlete, Eben Byers, was such a fan of the concoction that he drank 1,400 bottles of it, until his face literally came apart, as this headline from The Wall Street Journal perfectly narrates:

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Wordplay, or syntactic ambiguity, is a great tool for crafting headlines. This is by far my favorite from last year:

Screenshot 2014-04-09 21.50.58Assonance and consonance – the repetition of vowel sounds or consonants – can also be of great help. This New York Post example is proof that great headlines can be found anywhere:

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What about rhyming? it’s old school, but effective. You may be familiar with the Mile High Club, but you may not know that its founding father is also the inventor of the autopilot, an essential device if you’re at the controls and looking for distraction. His name is Lawrence Sperry, and in 1916 he showed his invention – and presumably more – to one Cynthia Polk, while flying low over water. Something went wrong, and the two plunged into the water. They were rescued, both naked, by duck hunters. One unidentified New York tabloid brilliantly summarized the episode:

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My favorite sports headline ever comes from a November 1968 issue of The Harvard Crimson. It reports on a football game played between the best of the Ivy League, Harvard and Yale. Yale was on a 16-game winning streak and was nationally ranked. They were leading 29-13 with less than a minute remaining. Then, the unthinkable happened. A fumble, a two-point conversion, an onside kick, another fumble, and another two-point conversion. Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds. With no overtime, the game ended in a tie, but Harvard got there in such an amazing way that it felt like a win, and a crushing loss for Yale. Hence, the perfect headline (above the masthead):

otsAcShThis recent example is from The New York Times:

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Sure, it needs a subhead to explain itself, but it carries a lot of weight: it sets the tone for the whole article, making it clear that the topic at hand is addressed – as it should be – with a lighthearted touch.

A great headline is a gift to the reader. You can savor its perfection, you can dwell in its stylistic sobriety – 6 to 8 words being the accepted ideal length for any headline. But clickbait headlines are never short, nor beautiful. They are a trap, and they don’t give you anything but an urge to click. It’s a transaction, not a gift.

Tim Radford, former Guardian science editor, writes in his brilliant Manifesto for the simple scribe: «When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader».

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The Infinite Blades Hypothesis

How many blades does your razor have?

If you’re a customer of one of the two leading brands and you’re on their latest products, it’s likely to be either four or five. Gillette and Schick (known as Wilkinson Sword outside the US) have been waging a razor war for decades, trying to take hold of a global industry worth about $25 billion a year. Gillette’s latest, the Fusion, has five blades; Schick’s Quattro has four, but the company also offers an upgraded five-blade version of a previous model, the Hydro (marketing a five-blade Quattro would make little sense, because quattro means four in Italian and their ads are built around a hand showing four fingers).

It’s a grueling fight, over which both companies spend billions each year in marketing and research. Just manufacturing the tools to build a specific razor may cost upwards of $250 million. It’s gone through the courts as well: Gillette sued Schick in 2003, claiming the Quattro was infringing one of their patents, but they lost. Nevertheless, Gillette still holds the lion’s share of the market.

Razors are prominent members of a group of products known as loss leaders. You might have noticed that the razor handle, which normaly includes two blade cartridges, is very conveniently priced. It’s basically free, to the point that the product has to be priced in such a way that it doesn’t become cheaper to buy razors handles just for the blades. This is designed to conquer you as a customer for the lucrative replacement cartridges, which are so expensive that they consistently rate among the world’s most shoplifted products, chiefly because of their value-to-size ratio. In other words, Gillette and Schick are willing to take a loss on the initial sale so they can reap the benefits from you later on.

But how many blades do you really need?
Gillette introduced the “safety razor”, so called because the blade is encased is such a way that it’s harder to cut yourself, back in 1904. It took them 67 years to add a second blade, in 1971. They then launched the Mach 3 in 1998 and the Fusion, with five blades, in 2006 (they skipped the four-blade generation because of patents). According to a tipically reliable Internet source, this creates a hyperbolic curve that will give us a razor with infinite blades sometime around 2026, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it. It’s interesting to note that in the early years, Gillette didn’t pursue a loss leading strategy: in fact, the razor was quite expensive. But King C. Gillette didn’t care because he had patents to protect his invention, so no one could sell cheap knockoff blades for his razor. Moreover, the blades themselves were made of carbon steel, so they would rust quickly: people were just forced to buy them frequently. Only in 1965, and after Schick introduced its own stainless steel blades, did Gillette finally make the switch, even though they had long held a patent on non-rusting blades.

But although Gillette has funded a number of studies that supposedly confirm the benefits of multiple blades, wether they actually produce a better shave is a matter of opinion. Two blades are good because the first raises hairs and the second cuts them. Additional blades could potentially just give you more nicks and ingrown hairs, depending on your shaving technique. Nevertheless, a six-blade razor is already on the market:

Not happy with just having six blades, the folks that sell this even put a shaving cream dispenser in the handle, making it just about the most ridiculous grooming item you can buy.

It gets trickier. You might have noticed that both Gillette and Schick also sell “power” versions of their razors, that use one AAA battery. It powers a tiny motor, similar to those used in phones for vibration, which supposedly facilitates the shave. The battery is included: Gillette gives you a Duracell, while Schick gives you an Energizer, the two top-selling brands in consumer batteries. Coincidence? No. Gillette bought Duracell in 1996 (they are now both owned by manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble), and Schick was bought by Energizer in 2003. When this happened, Gillette pre-emptively struck by launching a battery powered version of its Mach 3 razor, in late 2003. Schick quickly responded with a power version of its Quattro model. I am really not sure wether a vibrating razor is beneficial to your face, and Gillette has even been convicted for false advertising over this, but it’s interesting to note that both makers are selling you their own batteries, hoping you’ll buy more in the future (of course, while you’re forced to buy the correct blades for your razor, any battery will work, so brand loyalty is somewhat diminished here). If it all sounds exploitative, it’s because it is.

Another glorious field of application for loss leading is printers. Have you ever complained about how expensive ink cartridges and toners are? The reason they sound so expensive is that they cost a significant portion of the price of the printers themselves, which are sold at a loss. But if you buy the printer you’ll be committed to buying consumables, so manufacturers are willing to give you a bargain on the hardware just to rake you in. So, next time you’re out shopping for an ink cartridge or a toner, and you find it costs half your printer, at least you’ll know that the right question is not Why does the toner cost so much?, but rather Why was the printer so cheap?