Bringing a headline to a full stop
One of life’s great questions – should a period/full stop be put at the end of a headline or heading? Newspaper and magazine headlines don’t seem to do it. But what about advertisements and media releases – should the headlines finish with a period/full stop?
No one knew the answer to this question, so legendary advertising figure, David Ogilvy, asked Colin Wheildon to research this for him. Would a dot at the end of a headline sentence really make any difference to the all-important measures of reader recall and understanding? Wheildon was editor of Australia’s largest motoring publication with one million readers and had researched many aspects of typography and layout.
To find out whether the full stop in a headline affects readers’ comprehension, four different advertising pages were printed, with each design being in two formats – one with the headline full-stopped and the other without. The content of the two advertisement designs was identical, mostly comprising text.
Interestingly, there were differences in comprehension between the headlines:
- Headline without full stop 71% good comprehension
- Headline with full stop 58% good comprehension
The lesson from this is never to use full stops or periods in headline sentences. The only time punctuation would be appropriate would be to use an exclamation mark or question mark.
After the project was completed, the members of the sample were questioned on their reactions to the material. Those who read the headlines with full stops were conscious of the punctuation mark, and commented on it.
Approximately 22% of the total sample said they realized they were reading an advertisement when they came to a full stop, even though they were not aware of the content at that point.
Ten per cent of the sample indicated this discovery reduced their intention to concentrate on reading the material.
Twelve per cent of the sample indicated that they found the use of the full stops unnatural, and wondered why they had been used. Six per cent of the sample said the full stop indicated to them that there was no need to read any more of the message. The headline told them enough.
Reader feedback seemed to indicate that full stops, as their name suggests, tend to halt the flow of the eye movement of the reader whereas you want readers to continue to the body text. Comments:
- The full stop tended to pull up some readers with a jerk, and indicates to them there is no need to read on.
- The full stop indicated to some readers that what followed would be advertising material, and in their minds, not as worthwhile as editorial material.
(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a more recent version is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.)