You see dozens of them every day – in your email, in online searches and on blogs and other websites you visit.
They're inane, formulaic headlines written to tease you into reading some dumb sales pitch for something you neither want nor need. But actually, there's some method to this madness, and that method is an early 21st-century incarnation of some early 20th-century direct response techniques.
Before mass distribution, many advertisers sold their products by mail order, and used either print ads with coupons or direct mail pieces as media. They'd split-run different variations to see which ones got the most response, then go with the winning variation until it stopped working.
All too often, the winning variations had more to do with technical features – e.g., where the coupon was placed in the ad and how big it was, or how the mailing piece was folded and where the response vehicle was placed – than with the message or even the benefits of the product itself.
Today, the holy grail is not getting people to mail in the coupon, or even to call the toll-free number, but to click on the tiny ad or open the email and expose themselves to the full sales pitch.
Like their century-old predecessors, these ads fall into certain predictable formulas. To illustrate those formulas, xkcd.com took some major 20th century news headlines and rewrote them the way they'd appear if written today with the sole purpose of getting more clicks:
- 1912: The Titanic Sinks – 6 Titanic survivors who should have died
- 1920: Women Get The Vote – 17 things that will be outlawed now that women can vote
- 1928: Fleming Discovers Penicillin – This one weird mold kills all germs
- 1929: Stock Market Crashes – Most embarrassing reactions to the Stock Market Crash [gifs]
- 1945: Concentration Camps Liberated – These 9 Nazi atrocities will make you lose faith in humanity
- 1948: Berlin Airlift – 5 insane plans for feeding West Berlin you won't believe
- 1955: Polio Vaccine – Avoid polio with one weird trick
- 1968: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy Assassinated – This year's assassination ranked from most to least tragic
- 1969: First Moon Landing – This is the most important photo of an astronaut you'll see all day
- 1986: Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes – This video of a terminally ill child watching the Challenger launch will break your heart
- 1989: Berlin Wall Torn Down – You won't believe what these people did to the Berlin Wall! [video}
Like the real clickbait ads, almost all of these parody examples lead off with numbers. They categorize things as "weird" or"insane" or shocking or otherwise hard to believe. They talk more about your presumed reactions to the content than about the content itself. They trivialize the content and message and talk down – way down – to their audience. In fact they obscure the content, because if you knew right away what it was, you might not be suckered into clicking through to find out.
In fact, they're the living, breathing embodiment of something else from the early 20th century – H. L. Mencken's famous 1926 observation that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."