Teaser Headlines: The Media’s Desensitization of Important Issues

“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.” - Albert Schweitzer

Everyone’s hustling to write teaser headlines nowadays. In line with BuzzFeed’s not-so-distant tradition, sites like HuffPost, Upworthy and Salon spend countless hours crafting and testing headlines designed to champion clicks over content.

Lists are as much a part of the viral marketing scheme as teaser headlines. Yet the list, for better or for worse, will live on long after the teaser headline bites the dust.

headlines shock sensationaism

Both stir curiosity. But the list, at least, keeps its promise and fills a deep human need to bring order to chaos. The teaser headline, however, plays on irrational impulses and is too often anti-climatic.

The teaser headline takes curiosity to the next level — to emotion. Its aim is to stir an irrational impulse to click before people even realize why or what they’ve done. Once they’ve clicked they’re usually left with a feeling of being duped because the teaser headline sets up an expectation that can’t easily be met, a heightened interest that is difficult to sustain.

Take, for instance, teaser headlines that lead to user-generated video content; the original creators did not produce that content with the intention of maintaining the viewers’ interest in the name of consumerism, of selling something. Media aggregators, however, use a teaser headline to repackage content, and always with the intention of selling — selling viewers to advertisers.

Advertisers know that they must first pique a viewer’s curiosity and pull on emotional strings, but to sustain interest they must take the viewer on a bumpy ride of joy and surprise. Most user-generated content fails in that regard (as does most advertising content).

Viral publishers do try to “build an emotional roller coaster,” which is the solution put forth by the Harvard Business Review in “The New Science of Viral Ads.” But they often fall short of resolving the problems mentioned therein: Prominent branding puts off viewers, people get bored right away and people watch for a while but then stop.

The viral publisher tries to direct viewers to tension-filled moments by telling them exactly where to look. “You won’t believe your eyes at 1:23!” But after the irrational first click — based on the teaser — the next click is a more rational choice; if in the first ten seconds nothing thrilling is happening, there is a final click — to leave.


If viewers do stick around and bother clicking at exactly 1:23, the odds are minimal that they’ll click again when the publisher’s pop-ups and bright branded logos prompt them to opt in for similar content or to subscribe or sign up or agree to something (and that’s lots of clicks for lazy creatures).

pop ups headlines

While there may be a science to writing teaser headlines (or a now-tired formula), it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that people don’t like feeling cheated. Now that viral publishers can no longer rely on Facebook referrals, the gig will soon be up. Perhaps understanding both of these things, BuzzFeed recently invested in actual journalists and has even introduced an investigative unit led by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I am a reasonable, prudent person and I have reason to believe that there are many other reasonable, prudent people like me, and that they will soon grow weary of these viral tactics. They will look elsewhere for stimulation, albeit bite-sized, and begin skipping over antagonistic teasers. I don’t need a preachy publisher to convince me of “things that matter,” or push me to “pass ’em on.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 11.38.25 AM

Not to mention, the demographic making up the bulk of viral publishers’ readership, the sought after 18 to 34 year olds, simultaneously represents the lowest income group (slim pickings for advertisers).

Similarly, but in contrast to what TechCrunch’s Jon Evans predicts in an insightful piece of Standard Written English calling for the demise of Standard Written English, as a new generation of colloquial snark takes hold of the Internet collective, I submit to you that there will always be a place for SWE.

While there may be times when our moods call for a bit of snark over intellectual discourse, or time permits only digital dabbling, we will eventually curl up on a Sunday morning to read a serious piece of analysis or investigative journalism (which is obviously making a comeback).

I don’t believe as a society we are moving away from thoughtful discourse to high-school snark and tl;drs, at least not on a permanent basis, and regardless of attention span (fortunately not everyone in the industry is predicting an end to attention). Like high school, viral formats will eventually fall by the wayside.

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 11.21.07 AM

One can’t help but wonder also how long online publishers can get away with selling traffic packaged as a worthy cause — using feminism, marriage equality and the like to make a quick buck or ride the new wave of confessional essay.

Reducing important issues to bite-sized chunks without deeper contextual cues also works against active participation. Like media violence, there is a potential desensitizing effect that occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked and when the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary.

headlines desensitize societal problems

Studies show that prolonged and repeated exposure to violence in the media reduces or habituates the initial psychological impact until violent images no longer elicit these negative responses.

Certainly not everyone is convinced of the sustainability of the viral model. For as many newbie publishers adopting viral practices, there are many more doing exactly the opposite, distancing themselves from the loved-and-hated list, as if to disassociate from the teaser headline.

“And though BuzzFeed the Internet may be determined to prove otherwise, we wholeheartedly believe that human beings are capable of absorbing new information in formats that are… not sequentially ordered.” –NPR

If you tease your readers, be prepared to deliver or risk losing credibility. Even if you aren’t guilty of it yourself, those that are give the entire lot a bad name (so don’t even go there). If you must create drama, do so without ambiguity. Tell the reader in no uncertain terms what to expect and offer something replete with substance.

Once people realize they are being played, they will more quickly recognize and disengage with teaser content. Even a slight pause can keep emotional irrationality from dictating behavior and stop someone from following a trail that leads to nowhere.

In this day and age, no one wants to waste time, let alone feel like a chump.

*featured image credit: www.ncseurope.it