Not every headline writer should try their hand at this technique. A special skill-set is required to pull off a really dynamite pun. Most headline puns are stretches, ill-conceived or repetitive. (Many travel writers have worn out their welcome with headlines like Czech It Out and Going Dutch. But a good pun headline is a delight and a definite enticement to read further.
It's a shame that search engine optimization is killing the pun.
I'm not one of those who believes that SEO is destroying good writing. Lazy practitioners of SEO may load keywords into paragraphs with such wild abandon that they become unreadable. But good SEO technique should actually make headlines and lead paragraphs better, since they'll help readers focus on the article's core content.
But puns just don't help articles rise to the top of search results. An article on SEO techniques for journalists from eConsultancy dished up this example:
Poole Council replaced their town centre Christmas tree with a green cone that plays music and flashes inbuilt lights. Naturally, almost every newspaper covered this story with the headline 'Elf and Safety.' However, I heard the story on the radio and then Google News'd it at work. I searched for 'Christmas tree health and safety," so ended up reading one of the few articles that didn't make that joke in its headline. (The Telegraph ran with 'Poole axes real Christmas tree for safer fake one because of health and safety.' There's a paper that gets it.)
Therein lies the problem. With a paper newspaper, you flip through all the pages and glance at all the headlines. Online, you search for stories that interest you. The headline you see while turning pages isn't one you'd ever think to inform your search when exploring Google News.
There are ways around the problem. One answer to a LinkedIn question asking how to retain puns and still meet SEO requirements suggested putting the pun in the headline but the more descriptive headline in the title tag.
Not everyone appreciates puns in headlines. "Clarity and ease of understanding should be the aim of all headline writers, whatever the medium they're destined for," wrote one LinkedIn member answering the pun headline. And David Higgerson, head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, insists that, "Far from killing headline writing, the Internet provides a way to tweak a skill to reach a new audience."
But how many headlines do you remember from 35 years ago? That's how long ago it was that I worked for the (now-defunct) Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle, where Steve Springer was the sports editor. (Steve went on to cover the Lakers for the Los Angeles Times; he's also written several sports books.) Steve was a master of the pun headline. One day, he planned a large color photo on the front page of the sports section featuring colorful yacht sails that were photographed at a regatta in nearby Oxnard. The regatta happened to be held on election day. Steve's headline that has stuck in my mind for three and a half decades?
Heavy boater turnout
And if that's not enough, here are some classics I uncovered while doing some searching for this post:
A British Airways flight attendant was suspended for stealing a muffin that a passenger left uneaten on his tray. The Sun's headline:
Much ado about muffin at BA
The New York Post printed this headline over a movie review:
Iron Man Steels the Screenâ€"Sure Hit is Weld Done
The Sunâ€"known for its punsâ€"drafted this headline with an unheralded football team from Caledonia beat the Scottish titans, the Celtics:
Super Calley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious
The Detroit News ran a story about a no-smoking ban taking effect at the stadium where the baseball Tigers play:
Tigers: No butts in stadium seats
A newsmagazine (the author of the post the recounted the headline couldn't remember if it was Time or Newsweek reviewed a movie called "Switching Channels," a poor remake of the classic Cary Grant/Rosiland Russell film, "His Girl Friday" (itself a remake of "The Front Page"):
No less an institution that The New York Times has gotten into the act, as with its obituary of the artist, Salvador Dali:
So long, Dali, it's been surreal
A food review from some forgotten publication declared:
What a Friend We Have in Cheeses
When a volunteer working at a bingo hall was the victim of an assault, a newspaper reported:
Bingo hall worker B-10 and robbed
And the Chicago Sun-Times was just one of the newspapers that couldn't resist a pun when the fast-food chain, Wendy's, suffered a PR nightmare with the discovery of a severed finger in a cup of chili:
Finger in Chili Not Getting Any Easier to Digest
Perhaps the headline pun isn't all that long-lived a tradition. Perhaps it's not as clear and concise as a statement of fact. But it's creative, it's fun and it sticks with you. As newspapers continue their migration online and adopt SEO techniques, I'll miss seeing these journalistic gems.