David Ogilvy’s Guide To Writing Ads Explained Part 36

Element 36 is unusual. In fact, it’s rarely talked about in modern marketing (or copywriting for that matter).

We all know about headlines. We also know about ledes (aka lead). And we know about body copy and images and all that jazz.

We also know that the point of a sentence (be it a headline, body copy, or anything else involving words) is to get the reader to read the next sentence.

But element 36 is different. It’s purpose is to get the reader to read in the first place. You’d be forgiven for thinking that was the purpose of a headline, which it is, but that would be forgetting one thing – how do you get someone to actually READ a headline?

The correct answer is – a striking image. But we all know that too. So what is element 36? It’s that rarely used image element called a caption.

Newspapers have been using them ever since images first appeared in print (a picture being worth a 1000 words was evidently not true for newspaper proprietors).

But advertising agencies? When was the last time you saw an image with a caption in a modern ad? The reason is two-fold. 1) few even consider it (it’s been forgotten), and 2) those who do remember, think it’s old hat (if used in a traditional way).

So maybe it’s time to rethink this and start using them again in strategic and creative ways. When we see a strong image, we stop and look. If we spot a caption, we are compelled to read it – but more importantly, we trust it.

Captions have always been serious (because of the strong newspaper association). So if that caption contains a compelling hook about something we want, then our next action is going to be to read the headline. Job done.

PS. You could argue that a tagline is a caption. And that is true where its message and placement is relevant to an image. In fact, that sounds to me like a first step in getting creative with captions.

PPS. We all read from top to bottom (with a couple of exceptions descended from the Kawi script of Indonesia). This is why headlines should be at the top of a page (it tells us where to start reading). But images can appear anywhere, and as such, if we find an image compelling, we have, so to speak, made the image become the ‘top’ of the page, this is why our eye then flows down to the caption, and then on to the headline (this is how captions work).


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