People have always been drawn to the biggest, the grandest, the best. There’s a reason that Little Red Riding Hood was chased by the “Big Bad Wolf” and not “a reasonably-sized wolf in a cranky mood that day,” and it isn’t only because the former rolls off the tongue. And, because no one wants to settle for anything but the greatest, it’s easy to be susceptible to clickbait, to be drawn by publishers using hyperbole to get an ounce of attention.
The name we give it might be new, but this method of marketing is anything but. In the 1920s, this tactic was used by circuses and freak shows, boasting attractions like the “Greatest Bareback Rider of All Time,” bringing crowds of people out to the event to see what was claimed to be the world’s most amazing horseback rider. “A Really Good Bareback Rider” just wouldn’t have cut it, though that’s probably all she really was.
In the 1940s, it was stirring newspaper headlines that drew people in. World War II provided constant opportunities for dramatic, emotional headlines like, “Invasion! Allies Pouring into Northern France!” and “Japs Slay, Torture Baatan Prisoners” that needed to sell papers with very limited print space. If “slay” was replaced with “kill” and “pour” was replaced with “enter”, the headlines would be easy to walk by. There wouldn’t be enough drama for newsstands to sell their fair share each day.
Fast-forward to the 1980s, and the infomercial industry as we know it today begins. With cable TV came increased opportunities for ad space, but this also meant there was more competition on the landscape. In an effort to keep up, “revolutionary,” too-good-to-be-true products began buying the cheap hours of TV advertising: 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Between the late-night daze and the outlandish claims made by excited hosts promoting everything from Ginzu knives (The last knives you’ll ever need!) to the Thighmaster, (you can shrink your thighs anywhere, even eating on the couch!) sales skyrocketed, proving that some well-timed truth stretching can sell just about anything.
Now, most of us know that circuses tend to cause more harm than good, that unless it’s stated otherwise, everything we see in magazines is photoshopped to the point of no return, and that television is really only a vehicle for advertising. The newest version of clickbait is legitimate bait waiting for a click. Crazy, often fabricated headlines are written only to be retweeted and liked for internet fame, thumbnails modified with emojis and superlatives pull us in to click on a story that we normally wouldn’t even think twice about. It’s so commonplace that most of us are pretty oblivious to its power over us, and our kids will likely think us fools for ever falling for it.
What’s the next clickbait? What’s the next biggest, craziest, best that will pull our kids in and win their attention? How much more extreme will marketing need to get for them to be remotely intrigued by the product? For maximum effectiveness, the next wave of clickbait will have to take everyone by surprise, so only time can tell.