Do press ads and posters need headlines?

Are headlines an essential prerequisite for telling stories and can ads create intrigue and draw consumers' attention without them?

Like Howard Beale, the deeply troubled news anchorman in the 1976 black comedy movie Network, Steve Harrison is "as mad as hell". Not, as Beale was, with the perceived depravity around him but with what he sees as the perversity of awards juries.

With a shelf groaning under the weight of Cannes Lions, you might think Harrison wouldn’t have an unpleasant word to utter about such judges, let alone dub them "fashion-obsessed lame brains". What could have got the man acclaimed as one of the best creatives of his generation so worked up? It’s what he sarcastically calls "headless wonders". That’s to say, press ads and posters that get gongs even though they don’t have headlines.

Writing in Campaign recently, the former Wunderman worldwide creative director bemoaned the fact that last year’s D&AD jurors, along with those at Cannes, honoured ads with best writing and best copy awards even though they did not carry headlines.

Although Harrison has implored the D&AD judges to heed the error of their ways, they appear to have paid him no notice whatsoever. This year, press and writing Pencils were awarded to Grey London’s headline-free ad for Tate Britain and to an FCB New Zealand execution for Paper Plus Group.

Harrison’s contention is that, in attempting to look cool, the judges have merely revealed how dumb they are. He says: "All the evidence presented by neuroscience and education psychology (not to mention those who write in order to be read) stresses the unconditional importance of the headline in grabbing the attention of the disinterested reader and helping frame the copy that lies beneath."

Harrison is adamant that, in a fast-changing communication environment, one constant is a headline’s ability to grab people’s attention and make them want to read more. Of course, Harrison is no Beale-like ranter. But are his arguments outdated at a time when brands connect with consumers through such a plethora of channels that the once hard-and-fast rules, such as the necessity of headlines, no longer apply?

Supporters of the headline remain convinced that, as a way of establishing a tone of voice and a personality for a brand, it has no equal. Indeed, they argue, it is no less important than it was when David Ogilvy commented: "When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents of your dollar." This is borne out by research suggesting that, while eight out of ten people will read a headline, just two out of ten will continue to read the rest of an ad’s content.

Others, though, believe there is no point imposing rules that straitjacket advertising at a time when it needs to be pushing the boundaries. Some even question whether headlines are an essential prerequisite for telling stories and whether, in some cases, ads without headlines create intrigue and draw consumers’ attention.

Tim Lindsay, chief executive, D&ADCreative

Tim Lindsay, chief executive, D&AD

"My first reaction would be to agree with what Steve Harrison says. But you also have to bear in mind that ads are laid out less formally than they once were and are much more fluid than he would probably like them to be.

Times change and people now engage with advertising in different ways. What’s more, a lot of the work that D&AD juries have to consider might not necessarily be regarded as advertising.

However, it’s also clear that long copy remains alive and kicking. And that’s something that would doubtless meet with Steve’s approval."

Andy Nairn, co-founder, Lucky GeneralsPlanner

Andy Nairn, co-founder, Lucky Generals

"On one hand, headlines are a fantastically useful way of encapsulating your thinking and grabbing the attention of either your readers or those passing your poster. They establish a tone of voice for a brand in a much more flexible way than a strapline can.

"On the other hand, it’s possible to tell stories without the need for a headline. Sometimes the lack of one will make the ad even more interesting. A lot of fashion-oriented brands tell their stories this way. You also have to ask what a headline actually is these days. There should be no hard-and-fast rules."

Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner, Mr PresidentCreative

Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner, Mr President

"Headlines aren’t old-fashioned. Of course, it’s possible to create a beautiful piece of print work that doesn’t include a headline, but examples of that are rare.

"Creatives need to think about context. There’s no point creating something so obscure that it won’t sell your client’s brand. However, we shouldn’t be worried about boundaries. If we get too bound up by convention, how can we ever expect to improve?

"As creatives we have to keep asking ourselves where the future is going. It will be one in which people’s attention spans will grow smaller – but there will always be a place for a good headline."

Chris Macleod, marketing director, Transport for LondonMarketer

Chris Macleod, marketing director, Transport for London

"I’ve always understood the importance of creative work that’s effective. Headline or no headline? Who cares? Being creative is all about trying new things.

"It really comes down to what the ad needs to do. If you want to get across a message such as ‘mind the gap’ it makes sense to have a headline. And it’s true that a good headline sets up the communication.

"You shouldn’t be prescriptive about it, although I’d be worried if every print ad my agency presented to me didn’t have a headline. I think this debate is one that’s confined to adland. As a client, I just want results."