How To Write Headlines That Surprise The Brain


I ran across an ad for Patrón Tequila that, whether they intended it or not, employs a clever tactic based on neuroscience.

The ad headline is “Practice Makes Patrón.”

patron tequila ad

Substituting a word in a familiar expression, in the case “practice makes perfect,” is a common newspaper headline-writing technique. For example, “Home, Smart Home,” (a variation on “Home, Sweet Home) has been frequently used in articles about home automation.

But when the word change occurs at the end, the headline is even more likely to grab our attention. That’s because when our brain recognizes a sequence, it predicts what is coming next and compares that prediction to reality.

When there’s a mismatch between the two, our brain snaps to attention.

fmri hippocampus activity
From An Unexpected Sequence of Events: Mismatch Detection in the Human Hippocampus

Researchers at at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London found that the brain’s hippocampus functions as a sort of prediction and comparison machine, and reacts if there is a discrepancy between what is expected and reality. (See Surprising the Brain.)

So, when we see “Patrón” completing the phrase instead of “perfect,” it wakes up our brain a bit.

This ad is particularly clever because most of the brand’s ads have emphasized a “perfect” theme to describe the product. Not only does this ad surprise us, it also makes us think about the word our brain predicted. In this case, that word is part of the brand message.

Write Your Own Hippocampus Headlines

Writing content headlines? Brand slogans? Print ads? You can grab your reader’s or customer’s attention by substituting the unexpected for the familiar, preferably at the end of the phrase.

Common mottoes, slogans, proverbs, and so on are all fodder for repurposing. For example, add your own word to one of these phrases familiar to English-speakers:

“Don’t cry over spilt _____”
“Barking up the wrong _____”
“Close but no ____”
“Money doesn’t grow on _____”
“Don’t look a gift _____ in the _____”
“Fight fire with _____”
“Don’t count your _____ before they _____”

Beyond Words

Our brain is constantly predicting and comparing, so any sequence that looks familiar or predictable can be repurposed. Video, a sequence of photos, etc. all could be used in this way.

Indeed, it seems likely that quite a bit of humor is based on this prediction mechanism. The comedian sets us up to expect one thing, and our brain fills in the blanks. When the punchline or visual is nothing like what our brain predicted, we laugh.

Do you have any great examples of effective substitutions that surprise the brain? Have you tried this? Leave a comment with your example or thoughts!

  1. Dan Ewah says

    Hi Roger,

    I love your post, I just learned something amazing that I can use in my Marketing.

    I like the idea or repurposing popular words.

    Thanks for teaching this



  2. Mike says

    Great post! Also wanted to say I love the Blog. What a great combo! I find both Marketing and Neuroscience Fascinating. Look forward to reading more posts!!

  3. Very useful tips and an awesome example of writing attention-grabbing headlines. I love it.

  4. ann gibbon says

    We’re just off the Cdn election, won by Justin Trudeau. He was mocked for his lavish hair during the campaign. He’s also the son of former Cdn PM Pierre Trudeau. A brilliant headline I saw post election was Hair Apparent.

  5. lucas says

    I like this because it is something I see everyday in news headlines, but never actually thought to implement the idea myself in a banner or headline. It’s so simple I completely overlooked it!

  6. Ginny Brinkley says

    Yes, a great example is the subtitle of that amazing little sci fi book “Earth Quest–a story of life, love and the pursuit of red meat,” by Brinkley and Perry (available on Amazon).

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Nice example, Ginny!

  7. Asha says

    Very interesting! I look forward to coming up with some new headlines ?

  8. stella says

    …grab your reader’s or customer’s attention by substituting the unexpected for the familiar… isnt it the other way around? Substituting the familiar for unexpected. Because this is what you did with the slogan in the article.

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