Sometimes, you just get really, really stuck. Like the headline I wrote above. Pretty bland, right? I mean, it works, it’s informational, but it’s not fun. The CD looks at your line and asks, “where’s the twist? What’s the surprise?”
The words don’t always just magically “come to you” as people like to boast when asked, “how did you come up with that?” We learn to construct our language at a very early age, and a lot of what we were taught wasn’t complete bullshit.
Just take a stroll back to the basics of elementary learning, the ones we now inherently know and understand, but often forget how they work. Figurative language, rhetoric, poetic devices—re-examine the literary material you were taught in grammar school, and you’ll be back to it in no time.
This won’t cover everything, but it’ll try to get the good ones and drop some examples.
And before I begin, I’d like to thank Suzanne Pope, who’s original guide to writing, An Inconvenient Truth for Copywriters, helped me in my career, and inspired me to put this together.
Anesis is a famous Greek term used in drama. It’s essentially concluding your statement with something that diminishes what has previously been stated, leading you down a different path than you expected. For headlines, you need to be quick to cut the first line with the second. It’s often sarcastic and works well with humor.
You just drive them towards one direction, then twist the other way.
Analogies span and cover a wide range of literary devices, such as metaphors, similes, symbolism, and allusion. But it’s essentially comparing two separate things, often considered unrelated, and finding a way to connect them. You see them everywhere. They’ve been around since the beginning of advertising. Such as this classic Volkswagen ad, which does so in just one simple word.
The Economist is famous for their classic use of copy-driven ads, such as—
You can also hide the analogy while still making a clear connection. I will point out in this example, they broke a rather unwritten rule we should all be aware of: do not start your headline with the word “because,” …because it’s overdone.
You can eliminate that rule by re-wording it just a bit, perhaps to say, “Better than chewing deodorant,” or, “Would you rather chew deodorant?”
I digress. If you’re stuck on metaphors, another way out is a simile. The difference between metaphors and similes comes down to just two words: Similes contain the words “like” or “as,” making a clear distinction. If you write an analogy and it takes too long to figure out, try writing it as a simile.
Rhetorical Questions & Rhetorical Answers
We see these all the time. A question meant to not be answered. Instead, you expect the viewer to work it out themselves. But your question must guide them there. Rhetorical questions can be found in all the other categories in this article, as it’s easy to take a headline written one way, and turn it into a question.
This classic print from Mazda tells you the car is fast with a rhetorical question.
The following rhetorical question also serves as an analogy.
Rhetorical answers, as defined by Urban Dictionary, are “answers to a rhetorical question, what is asked to make a point, which is answered to make a point.” That’s where you put the twist. Like these Nytol ads, where the answer is the punchline.
An overstatement, exaggeration, or hyperbole is embellishing a concept so far it’s clearly untrue, but drives home the point. We use them every day without even noticing. “I died laughing,” is a common hyperbolic expression. This line from Jack Daniel’s hot whiskey makes outrageous claims about its heat.
And here’s an awfully clever oldie from Nike.
Parallelism can be anything from a word to a phrase or even a sentence. It’s pretty simple, you just repeat parts of the first sentence in the second. You can make them grammatically identical, or just similar in construction. You’re trying to create a recognizable form of symmetry. Here’s some great and short uses of parallelism from this year’s data-driven campaign by Spotify.
Here’s some older examples from the clothing brand, Diesel. Note how the previous example uses copy only, while the following uses imagery that helps carry the message.
This one’s pretty simple and easy to get away with. If you’re stuck comparing words or themes, see if you can find a few descriptors that start with the same letter or sound. It’s pretty straightforward, and keeps it catchy. I bet you’re all familiar with this famous slogan from Maybelline’s early 90’s commercials.
Speaking of slogans, the Wall Street Journal was known by their famous tagline that uses alliteration. The line might not be the best, but the alliteration is what makes it catchy.
Alliteration works great when the only visual you can use is the product itself, or show no product at all. Note how Dodge is able to keep it short and concise. All it takes is some adjectives.
Some may argue it’s an easy way out, and doesn’t add the best twist. I will admit that it’s often true. But if you can find adjectives that twist the perspective from one direction to another, you just might land on something worth writing.
This is actually a type of metaphor, and I’ve separated it because it really should be tackled as its own entity. Rather than comparing two things figuratively, you’re bringing the subject to life, thus comparing it to the actions of a living being. It’s pretty straightforward, but still hits on the “unexpected” aspect.
And a classic from Porsche. Says everything about its speed in just three words.
Facts & Stats
These are pretty easy to play with, because you have a solid starting point. You just need to add your twist. You can use bizarre facts that fascinate, or real statistics with a line or insight that gives it a new meaning. The goal is to say something that takes the reader down an unexpected road.
Here’s a great example I pulled from an old One Show annual. They used the statistical data of Tahitian settlement, and paired it with the insight of Tahiti being a popular vacation destination. This could also be argued as use of an overstatement.
This ad leads you to the bottom line by juxtaposing two related facts (+bonus points for parallelism).
Even better yet, Spotify nailed it once again in their data-driven outdoor campaigns. They took statistics from their user data, and connected it with the insight of a current event, to twist the conclusion. They’re not misleading you with the fact, but rather creating a satirical observation.
This last example from DePaul France also makes a clear point by pairing up two statistics in a way that makes them relevant to each other.
Oof, tread lightly here. Puns can go so wrong, so fast. Which is why I chose to put it in last, as it should be a last resort. You can play off the meaning of a word, or you can twist and tweak the familiar into the unfamiliar.
However you choose to write it, the biggest thing to remember is don’t make it cheesy.
Here’s a great example from the Lebanon Lottery. The way the double entendre is structured, there’s a wider playing field for some good, funny copy that all works with the ending clause.
It’s common to see idioms and everyday phrases used as puns. I’ll pull up another example from The Economist, just because they’re that rad. These folks are good at playing off common expressions.
But a general rule-of-thumb is, the deeper the meaning, the less likely it is to be cheesy. The better the twist, the better the pun.
Stay Away From Borrowed Interest
I’m including this as a precautionary warning. Ask any copywriter and they’ll tell you the same thing, it’s the most common mistake beginners fall into.
Borrowed interest is a type of metaphor, but one you shouldn’t use. “Stronger than the Hulk,” or “Funnier than Saturday Night Live,” are examples of borrowed interest.
It’s okay to use pop culture and existing themes if done right, as seen in some of the examples above — but don’t make the headline obviously and strongly rely on that. For two reasons:
1: It’s an easy way out, there’s not much of a surprising twist that makes you think, “AH — wasn’t expecting that!” It’s taking something that’s already been established and redirecting the message towards what’s borrowed, instead of what you’re trying to communicate.
2: Legal restrictions — spec work is one thing, but when you start working on a real brief for a real client, you’ll find that there are all sorts of legal issues with copyrighted and trademarked subjects.
Hopefully I’ve given you some solid starting points. Like I said, I can’t cover everything. Many literary devices are more complicated, less frequent, or even irrelevant to ponder. They range from to assonance to oxymorons, antimetaboles, compound rhymes, and so much more. But I hope I’ve helped you get out of that writer’s block and back to the pen and paper.
I was inspired to write this based on a guide I found long ago by Suzanne Pope, using many of the tactics she provided in her guide. The article went missing for awhile when the hosting website was taken down, but I’ve recently found a source. She provides great examples, some tactics I didn’t include, and provides examples of visual-driven techniques as well. You can read it here: An Inconvenient Truth For Copywriters: How To Write Headlines, And Why Your Career Depends On It.