When to Use a Deceptive Headline or Subject Line to Gain Your Reader’s Attention

Will Newman

I recently wrote a Writer’s Life article about hidden stashes of headline inspiration.

These stashes are websites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Gawker, and the National Enquirer.

The article hit a chord with readers, one in particular. The Writer’s Life reader Rick J. emailed me with a concern:

I just read your Writer's Life article about the "hidden stash" of headline inspiration you recently found.

I googled the article you referred to, "Larry Klayman is Suing Obama, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Probably You."

You're right. Those three words "and probably you" sure do turn a blah headline into a compelling attention-grabber.

But I found a problem. I searched the article looking for the compelling part … the part about “me” being sued. It wasn't there.

So I read Mr. Klayman’s blog post. It wasn't there either. But I did find something disturbing. Here's what Mr. Klayman said:

"I am filing a lawsuit, with myself as the initial plaintiff, against Obama, Black Lives Matter, Farrakhan, and Sharpton for endangering not just my life as a white law enforcement person, but also for all Americans, white, black, yellow, or brown, no matter what their race or religion."

Truth is, Klayman is suing Obama and the BLM … But he’s definitely not going to sue me.

There's the problem. To create an attention-grabbing headline, somebody changed the truth into a lie. Granted, it's more compelling and attention-grabbing than the truth. But it's a lie.

The sleazeballs who write headlines for these gossip sites don't care about truthfulness. They lie and deceive for a living.

So in an article recommending that we study and copy the work of professional deceivers, I think it would have been wise to mention the importance of making sure that our headlines are not only compelling … but true.

I am red-faced for not making that clarification. Probably because having worked as long as I have in copywriting, especially being associated with AWAI, being honest in all I write is a given. It’s so automatic and engrained, I don’t give it conscious thought.

I, too, read the article. But for my Writer’s Life piece, the content of the article Rick googled wasn’t important. The headline was. Or so I thought, in trying to limit my piece’s length.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anyone to google the blog. (I predict Rick will be a good copywriter because he took that extra step. Congratulations, Rick!)

The content of the blog did not deliver on the promise of the headline. And whether or not the reader agrees with the article, there’s a lingering sense of being deceived.

When this sense of being deceived happens in anything you write because a headline or subject line deceives or doesn’t really connect with your main message, your reader will likely throw up her hands in disgust and stop reading.

Not what you want when you write promotional copy. Or subject lines. Or headlines for newsletters.

A good copywriter knows not to trick the reader with a headline or subject line, no matter how compelling it might be.

Honesty is not just “the best policy” in copywriting. It’s the most successful one.

So, to answer the provocative subject line and headline for this article:

When to use deceptive headlines and subject lines?


Provocative, yes.

Deceptive, never.

I hope to see you here tomorrow when I’ll talk about “anachronisms” — those delightful out-of-date expressions we still use.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about today’s article. Comment below to let us know what you’re thinking.

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Published: August 10, 2016

19 Responses to “When to Use a Deceptive Headline or Subject Line to Gain Your Reader’s Attention”

  1. THANK YOU!!! I can't say that enough!! As a journalist, with a journalism degree, when I see those headlines, I am so angry at the alleged reporter, that I want to scream! Deceptive headlines are becoming more and more blatant throughout today's social media and it casts a very negative light on all journalists. And, that's only the tip of the iceberg for today's reporters! Biased, opinionated news reporting also has become the norm.


  2. I admire your integrity. I too place honesty above all, and deeply respect anyone who makes a public apology.

    I haven't read your previous article nor the one you referenced. However, based on this one, it would seem that the headline wasn't necessarily deceitful. Because I bet a massive percentage of people reading it ARE at risk for being sued. Heck- a robber breaking into your home can sue you if he hurts himself on your property!!!

    So, I kind of see all sides of the story.


    Guest (Gav)

  3. I agreed 100% until I pondered the intended audience of that article. As a black person reading this headline, the "and probably you" clause seems to imply "and probably you if you support the Black Lives Matter movement." Otherwise, it does seem like a lie because the author never says whom else could be sued. But since he addresses the BLM movement as a group, then it's certainly possible that a BLM supporter could be sued as well (according to the article). Taking the copy and its headline collectively gives it a different spin from my perspective after reading it. Either way, it's deceptive in my mind.

    Guest (NJMac)

  4. Not once do you refer to President Obama as the President--which he is. Will be unsubscribing ASAP.

    [FROM WILL: Hello Brandie. I appreciate your comment, and IU personally would never disrespect the president regardless of political affiliation. However, this is a quote. As such, it needs to be presented as written. I could have used (sic) to indicate a mistake, but it doesn't qualify as such. I do hope you reconsider unsubscribing. -- Will]

    Guest (Brandie)

  5. I only have one thing to say - Thank God someone finally said it. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.

    Guest (Rhonda)

  6. I always wonder when websites that use clickbait will go away. People will comment on social media about how they will "unlike" their page and yet they still seem to be making more money than me, so it doesn't make sense. Tell the truth and don't get paid, but post clickbait and watch the ad revenue roll in.

    Joshua Macala

  7. Totally. When I click on a headline or subject line of that sort, I am looking for the substantiating details as I read. If I can't find them, then I'm outa there. Even if it's about a product or service I want to buy. They've failed the trust test.

    Guest (Pete)

  8. Thanks for the clarification. My first thought when I read your headline and then looked at the material you were panning I thought can you seriously back the type of headlines they use. I was grateful to find that you don't.
    sincerely dennis

    Guest (Dennis)

  9. Mr. Newman! I agree with you 100%! If your headline misleads, you'll lose credibility. Statements must not be dishonest. There is a very fine line between good natured humor and implied sarcasm. You can create intrigue, but not a false narrative!
    If I read a sales pitch which fails the honesty test, I'll remember it and avoid it like the plague. My time is much too valuable to waste reading long rambling sales promos.


  10. I agree - deliberate deception is despicable. But what about unintentional deception? Some writers may not set out to mislead or deceive their readers, but do so with poor grammar or wording. Editing and proofreading are essential - not just for typos, but for honesty and clarity as well.

    Guest (Sonia P)

  11. Thank you for your update Will. I agree wholeheartedly and think deceptive headlines in any form can give copywriters a bad name. I didn't catch the omission myself, and think its great that Rick was able to, and I appreciate your clarification on the matter. I didn't feel your original article suggested in any way that we should learn a lesson or two in deceptiveness from those websites, but merely pointed out their use of headlines to grab attention, and that they do!


  12. Thank you so much Will,

    I share the exact same thoughts with you too of NEVER to use a deceptive headline, but rather to explore the human curiosity, concerns and needs in a creative and provocative way to grab their attention with the headline.

    Thanks once again



    Guest (William)

  13. Revelation, chapter 21, verse 8, is enough for me. (Revelation is the last book in the Bible.)



  14. Dear Mr Will Newman,

    I agree with You.I admit that Your way of teaching engaged me to assume the reality that "HONESTY" in creating headlines is very important.At the beginning of my training I mentioned that those copy writer who do not sacrifice "HONESTY" will be more successful.I was right.I am proud of myself to be a honest copy writer.Your efforts CAUSED A TREMENDOUS inspiration in my learning process which keeps me as tide on writing as the earth-ball in its circle rotating round the sun.

    Guest (ali rely)

  15. Bravo! It's refreshing to see not only honesty (a rare commodity these days) but also the humility to admit a mistake! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who gets really peeved when an article doesn't deliver what was promised in the headline.

    R M

  16. Hello wills!

    I know the feeling of feeling frustrated when a content you've and read is bargain, filled with lies or deception. Know one would want to be associated with that.

    It is your honesty that will keep people coming back for you. There's no two sides to the coin.


    Guest (Wilfred)

  17. After working through ANY of the AWAI programs, is someone is REALLY NOT going to get the principle that a good copywriter is to DELIVER on the headline promise(s) in his/her content? I have read that principle SEVERAL times in the programs that I have worked through. If you, Mr.Newman, did not make that clear in your previous article, it should be common sense to any good copywriter. Your references were for example purposes to inspire writers in their quest for attention-grabbing headlines.

    Guest (Bill)

  18. I am both interested in and confused by the claims you made, given the casual instruction I've seen from AWAI professionals for getting the first client: " You have to make up your experience with a successful ad campaign in order to show that (s)he is getting the kind of copywriter you claim to be." Even if not verbatim, this suggestion is exactly what has stopped me from pursuing copywriting to make money. I must offer my skills, being straightforward about what I have done.


  19. Gee Will? Self-servingly too worked up about whether Larry Klayman's suing US, you deceptively imply that it's somehow okay to sue THEM: i.e., President Obama, Black Lives Matter, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Whassup w/ dat, dude?

    And thank you, Brandie. Your comment from two days ago was spot on! I too will be unsubscribing from AWAI.

    SchNO'm sayin', Will?

    [FROM WILL: Hello Chris. I hope you read my response to Brandie and reconsider unsubscribing. I try assiduously to keep politics out of these articles. But at the same time, I want to maintain integrity in quoting properly. Thank yu for your consideration.]

    Guest (Chris Morris)

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