How The Right Headline Turned a Photo Into $50,000

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I’ve been doing my own advertising creative and design work for close to 15 years. For my own businesses and for clients. And, one of the things I consistently say is:

Don’t use humor in headlines or make images the focus.

And, I give the same advice for blogs. The reason isn’t that they don’t work, it’s that humor is often (a) hugely subjective or (b) used as a crutch when you’ve got nothing else to offer. And, when it comes to images, all too often, they may be pretty or funny or edgy, but they add nothing to the emotion or “social triggers” beyond a dash of color.

But, every once in a while, you find a way to work humor and images into your ads that creates magic.

I just rediscovered the above advertisement. It was a full-page newspaper ad I created for my personal fitness facility back in 1999. The kid in the picture was my nephew and the headline popped into my head the moment I saw the shot. We ran it for a single week. It cost about $1,600 (hey, it wasn’t the NY Times) and it generated more than $50,000 in annualized revenue…not including 3 moms who called to find out how much the kid in the picture cost.

That’s $3,125 in revenue for every $100 spent on advertising. Not a bad return on investment.

So, what’s the moral?

Know the rules. But, even better…know when to break ’em.

And, now, a question…

Why’d it work so well?

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25 responses

25 responses to “How The Right Headline Turned a Photo Into $50,000”

  1. Jonathan – know the rules and break them anyway. That is one of the toughest pieces of advice to follow. It takes serious judgment and expertise to take this kind of risk, and the bottom line is that successful entrepreneurs are prepared to take more risks. I guess that is why it worked for you then, and still is now. Though provoking post – thank you.


  2. BenSpark says:

    I think that this image and headline worked so well because the image was very non-threatening, in that it was something that was accessible to everyone and anyone. The expression, the posture, the set of the eyes and the ice cream all galvanized this image into something funny, sweet and real. The headline was also good because it tapped into one of those universal sayings about weight gain. You could picture the child thinking this or saying this in a cute and funny way that kids do.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      You keyed in on something critical with the word “accessible.” The fitness industry is generally known for providing scary, intimidating solutions, so part of what I was doing what trying to change the energy around our solution.

  3. Hans says:

    Hi, sorry I’m not really adding anything. I noticed that broke another rule: frequency. You ran this ad once? It’s amazing that you still had such great ROI.
    Cheers, Hans

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great observation, Hans. I was going to mention that, but figured I’d see if anyone else picked up on it. The classic line in print advertising is that it takes a minimum of 6 to 8 exposures for someone to response. I don’t agree, it really all depends on the quality of the add and the strength of your offer. What you don’t see here is the bottom of the add, which was an offer for a complimentary first visit tied to a short expiration date.

      Small businesses generally don’t have months to figure out whether an ad is pulling or not.

  4. Enrico says:

    Oh com’on, and why “Look Who’s Talking” became a classical?
    Everyone loves to put words in mouth of kittens and toddlers. It’s just something everyone does in his mind and discovering that others do the same is just funny! 🙂
    And funny, clever humor actually work! Yes, funny and clever humor because humor sometime is just sad and stupid. This humor has to be banned!

    My 2 cents: I follow the weekly email newsletter of a leading local travel company and in the moment (after many many months) they let me use funny (and quite clever) humor in the headline the conversion rate grow 300%.

    Now, I really would like to know more about your exericne on humor in advertising to understand why it’s so different than mine…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      The rule comes from pure testing. Direct response marketers are fanatical testers. They split and multivariate test every headline. And, in test after test, humor almost always comes out way behind the big 3 – self interest, intrigue and news.

      But, like I said, there are always exceptions to every rule. As far as people always responding to babies and puppies. Not so. It’s all about understanding what your specific customer persona responds to. So, if my customer persona was 20-something, unmarried, testosterone-pumped male, this add would’ve bombed.

  5. Enrico says:

    Oh yes, in the last sentence the scrambled word is “experience” 😉

  6. I think it worked because it was a safe projection target for the audience. The audience saw themselves reflected in it (Hey, that’s me, only in the form of a cute kid). They were able to laugh at themselves so that they could acknowledge the truth and take action.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Don’t know what “safe projection target” means cuz remember, I’m a lot slower than you. 😉

      But, your last sentence “They were able to laugh at themselves so that they could acknowledge the truth and take action” is spot on. It was what some people would call a pattern interrupt, designed to immediately disarm automatic defenses, then install a different set of emotions–love, humor, silliness, acceptance–and associate that with what normally engenders a radically different response.

  7. Was most of your ROI from women, especially mothers trying to lose that extra baby weight they’ve been holding onto since they started their trip down Parenting Lane? You tapped into a couple of very strong emotional triggers for Moms and made them funny! It would work on me if I didn’t already have a [rarely used] YMCA membership.

    I’d be surprised if that photo and headline worked on men. Did you crunch those kinds of numbers?

    I love it — and your blog headline got me as well. I opened your email BEFORE I did another thing this morning! Great post AND headline, Jonathan!

    Michelle Quillin, for New England Multimedia

  8. Adam King says:

    I agree with Michael and add that the headline is associated with the common vernacular that’s repeated over and over again by the target audience, (which I’m assuming to be women especially mothers of late 20’s to early 40’s)

    So couple that with an image of something they see every day, and it’s instant recognition and immediate personal association. It triggers exactly the right feelings in the right order and at the right time.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yes, and it was also designed to poke fun at how ridiculous we sometimes are with ourselves.

  9. Julie Roads says:

    Opportunity effectively seized, great creative copy, fantastical picture, most perfect kid EVER.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yeah, my sister took the shot, she’s actually an amazing photographer, captures the coolest candid emotions in kids.

  10. Hans says:

    Did anyone notice how ridiculous the font is that you used? It has no dots on the i

    Cheers, Hans (just pokin’ fun at you, I’d love to have these candid shots of my daughter)

  11. Hugh says:

    Everyone can relate to this picture, and nearly everyone can relate to eating an ice cream cone at some point in his or her life. You say that humor is subjective and you’re right. But a picture with a kid with an ice cream cone is a subject with which everyone is familiar, and that is why it’s so effective.

  12. Jonathan,

    That’s great! A great example of advertising and trusting your gut.

    Man, I tell you… I am more inclined that most to use humor but in a careful, cautious way.

    I agree that this just speaks–it leaves one open and smiling at self. At the voice inside.

    I have one very similar that’s been on the drawing board for years… it’s just a simple image, slightly older boy… but similar engagement. Will share.

    Then the caption is very simple… honest.

    May not be this good… but you at least know. You tested, tried… put it out there.

    Congrats for that! And thanks for sharing.


  13. Hey found my photo…

    It’s not nearly as tight… and text was FPO… it’s too long but photo had some similar feel… intense in this one.

    Super Hero Fuel Photo


  14. My favorite line in your post is: “Know the rules. But, even better…know when to break ‘em.” I find that I do my best work when I keep the rules “in mind”…but then twist them (okay, break them!) to fit how something works best for me. It has taken me some time to be okay with this, but it feels GOOD!

    To answer your question, everyone can relate to a kid. But even more importantly, we can relate to what he’s saying!

  15. Hulbert says:

    The image looks as if it strikes curiosity in a person. You know how there are certain images or billboards that are sort of different, humorous, and make people want to find out more? Maybe this was the case with why the photo, in combination with a funny headline, make the advertisement so successful.

  16. Glen Allsopp says:

    Awesome example Jonathan, I love seeing things like this.

    The image actually made me laugh out loud so it was nice to see you put it together yourself.

    I think there is something subtle in there about the freedom of children and how we conform more as we grow up (diets). That’s what I picked up, anyways.

  17. […] the advertising world, it’s commonly agreed that the headline is responsible for about 90% of an ad’s effectiveness. Same thing in the book world. The title […]

  18. This Photo actually makes me laugh. The child looks identical to my nephew. That sceptical look in combination with the phrase – Good marketing campaign!