Are Scary Headlines really needed to guarantee more Eyeballs on Screens?

Do you want someone to read your email, blog, article, or newsletter?

Of course. We all do.

Marketers like me will tell you the key to success is to craft a irresistible headline. Pick up any newspaper or magazine from a newsagent’s shelf and scan the headlines and you’ll see that the media have this down to a fine art.

Scary Headlines

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The glossies are the masters of this science. In fact writing tutors encourage students to study titles like Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health to learn how to do it.

Here’s a Cosmopolitan article title:

20 Ways to Make Him Scream. In a good way

Here’s one from Men’s Health:

15 Powerfoods that Fight Fat

Headlines with statistics seem more effective. And if the statistics are scary – all the better.

But what about manipulating statistics to increase clicks? What about subtle interpretation of statistics to embellish a story to guarantee more eyeballs on screens? I ask this because Regulators have lambasted the Protection Industry for using scary statistics in the past. How far is it acceptable to go?

Let me give you an example.

Being partial to a nice bottle of red wine, especially if the grape is Zinfandel and it comes from California, a headline in a newspaper alarmed me recently claiming that a new study says that just one glass of red wine per day could increase your chance of getting throat cancer by 168%.


Wow that’s a huge increase isn’t it? I bet a lot of people who read that would be worried enough to read the article. I was (proving of course that the scary headline technique works).

But what is annoying, when you look into the detail of the article, is that they never tell you what the baseline is. What is the 168% increase on top of?

If the real chance of getting throat cancer is 1 in 1 million then a 168% increase on that turns a miniscule chance into a slightly more than miniscule but still miniscule chance. So it’s a non-story. Red wine drinkers however couldn’t resist clicking through and reading the copy.

And here’s an example from the Protection Industry. I recently came across an article with the following scary headline:

40 to 60 is the most dangerous time of life

They’d written the article about some figures Reinsurer RGA released stating that, “The majority of life insurance and critical illness claims are for people between the age 40 and 60.”

Whilst RGA’s claims figures are correct the headline’s interpretation of the statistics was completely wrong.

Scary Headlines

It is certainly true that age 40 to 60 is when most illnesses and deaths happen (and therefore claims) among the INSURED population. But given the average policy is taken out by someone in their 30s for about 25 years that’s absolutely expected.

If you looked at the wider population as a whole – most illnesses and deaths would not take place during that window. At a much older age in fact. The headline is more of a “interpretation of the stats” and not reality.

Does it matter if a headline is technically wrong as long as it compels someone to read it? In this example the more people reading might prompt more of them to go and seek advice about protecting their finances. That’s not a bad outcome is it?

If a life insurance company used that headline in a brochure there’s no way it would be compliant. They wouldn’t be able to use it.

But the media are not subject to those same compliance concerns. So are scary headlines, even wrong scary headlines, justifiable as long as they guarantee more click-throughs?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about scary headlines and the interpretation of statistics? If it makes more people read articles that might ultimately benefit them is it acceptable? Please leave a comment below and let me know your views.