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Ignoring this “Reader’s Habit” Could Cost You Sales

by | Jul 9, 2009 | B2B Copywriting, Corporate Brochures, Sales Brochures, Collateral, Headlines & subheads, Advertisements, Articles, Captions | 0 comments

I spent a couple of days at the Paris Air Show last month. And as I usually do at such events, I picked up a bunch of product brochures to take home and study. Reviewing them, one thing jumped out at me. I saw the same costly mistake being repeated over and over again.

I see it regularly in trade journal ads, as well. It’s a mistake that could cut the chances of your product brochure or ad being read – by half. And that could cut your chances of getting a lead and making a sale by half. That’s a lot of missed opportunity.

What caught my attention in those brochures were the photos. Lots of crisp, clear photographs of the latest aircraft, precision crafted aircraft parts and the high-tech equipment used to produce them. But the mistakes I kept seeing were not in the photos themselves, but in what I was NOT seeing with them. Or more specifically, what I was not seeing directly underneath them…


Brochure after brochure, the same mistake. Great photographs…NO captions. “Well, that certainly looks interesting,” I said to myself while trying to guess the function of a futuristic hand-held device shown in one brochure, “but what is it? And why does it matter to customers?”

More importantly, why leave it to customers to figure that out?

It’s as though the photos weren’t meant to help tell the story, but just to “project the right image” for the company. The message seemed to be, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.” But when it comes to reader expectations, clearly they don’t.

The great minds of advertising, on the other hand, have long known the value of captions.

Captions Get High Readership

“In newspaper articles, you will always find captions printed under the illustrations,” observes John Caples in his classic, Tested Advertising Methods. “These captions get high readership because they add to the interest of the illustrations and help to explain their meaning.

“The point is that people are in the habit of reading the brief messages that are printed under pictures. This habit dates back to the reading of school textbooks, which have always had captions under the illustrations. The advertiser should take advantage of this habit. Don’t run pictures without putting captions under them. Put a brief selling message or a human-interest message under every illustration you use.”

Caples states what we intuitively know to be true from our own experience as readers. But David Ogilvy says research confirms Caples claims. In the 1930’s, Ogilvy ran the Audience Research Institute at Princeton, measuring the readership of advertisements for George Gallup. “Captions should appear under all your photographs,” he writes in Ogilvy on Advertising. “Twice as many people read them as read body copy.”

Bob Bly agrees. Writing specifically about brochures in The Copywriter’s Handbook, he states, “Label all visuals with captions. Studies show that brochure captions get twice the readership of body copy.”

And this is still true, even in the online world. Researchers at Stanford University and the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit teaching and research institution on journalism, recently used advanced eye-movement interpretation technology to track the online news reading patterns of 67 people in the Chicago and St. Petersburg, Florida areas. “The Stanford-Poynter study found online readers often fixating first on news briefs (short summaries of stories) or captions,” wrote Kathleen O’Toole in the May 8, 2000 edition of the Stanford Report. “In analyzing the eye-movement patterns, the researchers noticed that most readers’ eyes shifted to the photos and illustrations on the screen, but only after clicking on a brief to get to a complete article and then returning to the page with the illustration or photograph.”

In other words, when a photo or illustration draws their attention, readers immediately seek out a caption or other associated text to get help them understand its meaning. Deny your reader that help and you’ve wasted the space and money you’ve spent on the illustration.

The Case of the Missing Captions

So why do so many illustrations in ads and brochures lack captions?

Ogilvy blames it on art directors.

“Look at the news magazines that have been successful in attracting readers,” he says. “Time and Newsweek in the United States, L’Express and Le Point in France, Der Spiegel in Germany, L’Espresso in Italy, Cambio 16 in Spain. Every photograph has a caption.

“Now look at the advertisements in the same magazines. Few of the photographs have captions, because the art directors are not aware that four times [sic] as many people read captions as read body copy.”

And while Ogilvy’s statistics don’t always agree with one another, the Stanford-Poynter study seems to support his conclusion. “Not all graphic artists who have heard about the study in seminars believe the findings about text’s relative importance to art,” said Andrew Devigal, a Poynter fellow and expert in online design. “Some felt the art is currently less salient because of present screen size and image resolutions.”

Personally, I think captions just get lost in the shuffle, because most staff writers and artists don’t realize their importance and don’t think about their readers’ habits. The writers leave the illustrations to the graphic designers. The designers just take the copy the writers give them. No one bothers writing captions for the illustrations. And prime advertising real estate goes to waste.

How to write captions that sell

So how can we best take advantage of our prospect’s habit of seeking out captions underneath photos and illustrations?

John Caples pretty much sums it up in a statement I quoted earlier: “Put a brief selling message or a human-interest message under every illustration you use.”

“Use your captions to sell,” says Ogilvy, restating Caples’ point. “The best captions are mini-advertisements in themselves.”

Ogilvy also offers more specific advice. For captions under the main visual in an advertisement, “Your caption should include the brand name and the promise.” And for visuals that convey lots of information, he suggests: “When you have to communicate a lot of different sales points, use ‘call-outs’. They are above average in recall tests.”

As with headlines and subheads, you can increase the selling power of your captions with the Four U’s, making them as Useful, Unique, Urgent and Ultra-specific as you can.

Here’s a good example of this from Bob Bly. “Make captions interesting and informative,” he says. “Instead of labeling a photo ‘Automatic wiring device’, write ‘A tape controlled, fully automatic wiring device (above left) makes approximately 1,000 wire wrap connections an hour, significantly reducing manufacturing costs.’”

And be sure to put your captions under your illustrations, or in the margin directly beside them.

I found one otherwise very good brochure in which the photos were numbered and their captions were placed one after another in a dark blue band across the top of each spread (in reverse type, another Ogilvy “no-no”). I quickly got annoyed with matching captions to pictures. Clearly, the design conflicted with my habit patterns, and I’d bet that would hold true for most readers.

Finally, in her book Copywriting that Sells High Tech, Janice King offers the following guidelines for writing text for visuals:

Keep them short. Captions can be more than one line, but more than three may lose the reader. Callouts can be as short as a single word, or as long as a single sentence.

Keep them relevant to the image. You will confuse the reader if the caption or callout introduces new or conflicting information. The caption should motivate the reader to look more closely at the image and reinforce information presented in the body copy.

Focus on one topic or information type per text element. Text for visuals, especially a caption or callout, can present several types of information.” In other words , if your caption is going describe a benefit or product feature depicted in a photo, but you also need to give a credit or copyright line to the photographer, make those two separate text elements.

And if you have need a new brochure or space ad – and you want to make sure all your captions and every other copy element is working hard to generate leads and sales for you – please call (+39) 011 569 4951 to discuss your project and get a free, no-obligation quote. Or email me at

Take-Away Points

Your prospect has the ingrained habit of reading captions under photos and illustrations.

Studies show twice as many people read captions as read body copy in ads and brochures.

So take advantage of this habit. Put a caption under every photo and every illustration, in every ad and brochure you create.

And use those captions to sell.

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