Why most headlines fail

Jan 22, 2024

Today’s topic was inspired by a copy mentoring session I had with an agency owner from Scotland yesterday.

He mentioned he’d been studying Gene Schwartz’s classic book, Breakthrough Advertising — a must-read for anyone who writes copy. If you use and apply this book wisely, it may be one of the best investments you make in your copywriting education.

My mentee said he was paying particular attention to Gene’s concept of “gradualization”. So this morning I grabbed my well-worn copy of Breakthrough Advertising off my bookshelf and decided to re-read what he’d written about this topic.

Now first, a confession: a lot of the copy I’ve written, especially earlier in my career before I began teaching these concepts in courses and in mentoring programs, didn’t come from studying books and piecing together step-by-step strategies.

A lot of it was more instinctual. It was based on what I felt or knew would work based on my knowledge of the market, the research I’d done, and from studying successful promos to that market.

So it’s interesting as I’ve spent the last several years teaching others how to apply the best copy tactics to see how many of the ones I used in my early days to produce successful controls actually used the concepts Gene wrote about.

I did read his Breakthrough Advertising book early on — it was tough to get a copy back then. And when I worked at Phillips Publishing, I got to spend an entire day in a copywriting workshop that Gene did for the company’s management team.

So perhaps I wasn’t consciously applying his tactics, but they were just there in my head — beliefs that already existed as to what would make the copy I wrote grab attention and get read and acted on by the target prospect.

That makes for a nice segue to the pre-existing beliefs that are in your prospect’s head. They’re what you need to focus on before you write a word of sales copy — a process Gene calls gradualization. It’s the third dimension that determines the prospect’s reaction to your ad (the first two are desire and identification.)

I’m going to give you a quick overview of the essentials you must know in order to deploy this response-boosting tactic in your sales copy. (Although I recommend you read–and re-read–the entire chapter on this topic in Gene’s book.)

First off, when you use gradualization correctly, it makes your prospect believe your claims before you state them. This is literally the title of the aforementioned book chapter.

To do so, you have to understand not just your prospect’s existing beliefs about your product, the problem it solves, and other solutions that are available… but also their overall principles, ideals, and related biases and experiences.

(Note: this is one of the steps to completing the Prism exercise that’s part of my Research Beast program.)

And this leads me to why most headlines fail. It’s because they are immediately rejected by the prospect, who may think, “Yeah, right!” or “That’s not for me.”

Why is that?

Because the #1 rule to using gradualization effectively is to NOT violate your prospect’s existing beliefs in the slightest. Because if you do so, nothing you promise them — no matter how appealing — can save your ad.

What you want to do instead is to build a bridge of belief between the facts that already exist in the prospect’s mind… and the ultimate facts the prospect must accept if they are to believe your claims.

The process of starting with these facts your prospect already accepts as true and then leading them through a succession of more and more remote facts — each of which they’ve been prepared to accept — is what gradualization is about.

You want to create a stream of acceptances that gets your prospect nodding their head and saying,“Yes! Yes! YES!!!” And it all starts with the headline of your ad.



Contrary to popular thinking, you can’t always lead with your most powerful claim.

That’s because without supporting evidence or even suspicion already existing in your prospect’s mind to prepare them for that headline claim, they just won’t believe it or it will fail to resonate.

They’ll think it’s exaggerated, false, or simply doesn’t apply to them. And that, put simply, is the death of your ad or headline.

Let me show you a few headline examples from some of my past control promos that make use of gradualization so you can see what I mean.

In this first example, the headline is for a memory-boosting supplement (this headline ran as the control for several years). See if you can determine the existing belief in the prospect’s mind that it’s speaking to…



What’s the belief? It’s that there must be something causing their worsening memory and forgetfulness. And if they could simply fix that hidden cause they can solve their problem and improve their memory.

Notice how the big speed-of-result promise “get your memory back in as little as 30 days” is at the end of the headline and deck copy. If I had led with it, it may have immediately engendered disbelief and have been rejected by the prospect.

Here’s another one that I wrote that became a successful control for a book called “Complete Survival Guide” published by National Geographic…



This headline speaks to the existing belief in the prospect’s mind that these top explorers and experts know things they don’t about how to survive in any emergency… and if the prospect doesn’t know them, they’ll be in danger.

I’m just showing you the main headline here, but there are other graphics on the front cover that play up the types of emergencies… like a bolt of lightning above the headline, in addition to the credibility-boosting National Geographic logo and that ominous black background.

It’s why copywriters need to work hand-in-hand with designers to achieve the desired message. If you can get a great copywriter-and-designer team who’ve collaborated in the past to create strong controls, you’re golden.

Okay, here’s one more example of using gradualization in a headline. This is from a detox supplement promo for which I had multiple control versions for years…



In this headline, it’s addressing (dare I say agitating) the existing belief in the prospect’s mind that government bureaucrats are out to get them. Even worse, the prospect believes the government’s regulatory ways are out of control, and they have to stay one step ahead in order to protect themselves.

That might sound like it’s appealing to a more conservative audience, but it could also appeal to a more liberal audience that believes big corporations are buying off politicians to do their bidding, so they’re skeptical of regulations as well. So it works both ways.

The headline also creates insatiable curiosity to find out what toxin they’re now being exposed to. As Gene Schwartz would say, you want the prospect to ask themselves, “Am I really in such grave danger?”

Hopefully I’ve helped shed some light on or reminded you of this crucial copywriting concept, and how it can be a huge needle-mover in your headlines and other copy.

If you come across any good promo examples “out in the wild” where they’re using gradualization, please send them over to me… I’d love to see them! (Somehow I don’t think the AI bots are on to this concept yet.)

Yours for smarter marketing,


P.S. I’ve got one spot available for VIP private mentoring. This is not the Copy Champions group mentoring program that kicked off a few weeks ago (all of those spots have been claimed). But if you’d like to do private, one-on-one mentoring, you can get the details and sign up here. Once that last spot is gone, that’s it.