What Words Sell? What Words Make You Feel Better in the Morning?

One goal of a magazine editor is to sell lots of copies of each issue on the newsstand. If you can get someone to buy a newsstand copy, they then might subscribe and many subscription renewals are one key to a magazine’s financial health. So editors do a lot of thinking about what cover subjects and cover lines will sell.

People magazine has been a newsstand star for many years and its founding editor, Dick Stolley, once came up with his laws of magazine covers. A little tongue-in-cheek but pretty accurate:

1. Young is better than old.
2. Pretty is better than ugly.
3. Rich is better than poor.
4. Movies are better than television.
5. Movies and television are better than music.
6. Movies, TV, and music are better than sports.
7. Anything is better than politics.
8. Nothing is better than a dead celebrity.

At the Washingtonian, we learned that the cover word “best” sold the most copies: 100 Best Restaurants, Best Places to Live, Best & Worst. The absolute best newsstand seller was Top Doctors—we had to use “top” because someone had trademarked Best Doctors.

A cover usually has five or six cover lines to go with the main cover story. I didn’t like to use “best” more than once on a cover so at times we struggled for other ways to say it. I picked 12 issues from a good newsstand-sale year and these were the cover words we used most often:

Great, beautiful, fun, favorite, inside, big, bargain, hot, new, delicious, top, friendly, charming, cheap, cool, real, undiscovered, expert, smart, talented, bold, wild, classical, popular, award-winning, romantic, youthful.

I was surprised to not find “free”—the most powerful word in retailing—on any of the covers.

Magazine distributors often told us that the Washingtonian was among the three top-selling magazines on Washington-area newsstands, beaten out only by People and Cosmopolitan. I looked at an issue of Cosmo and these were its cover sell words:

Sex, sexy, sexiest, hard-core, secret, naughty, free, fun, hottest.
As a semi-retired editor, I’m still fascinated by what words sell. At breakfast I often have a quick bowl of cereal and my favorite is “Great Grains” from Post Cereals. The sell lines on the box:

Great Grains
clusters & flakes
real raisins,
sun kissed dates
mixed with


You wonder how many copywriters labored to come up with those words, and how many Post Cereals vice presidents then debated whether crunchy, real, sun kissed, and wholesome were just the right sell words. Should sun kissed be sun-kissed? Are some raisins fake?

Other cereal boxes in our kitchen:

Special K

A wholesome blend of unique flavors
crafted to inspire your greatness
and bring goodness
in every bite.

Fortify the confident,
courageous you.

We all tap into and use our inner strength
in different ways. Special K wants to help
you on the journey ahead.

Original multigrain cereal

Quaker Life Cereal satisfies the kid in everyone with
just the right amount of sweetness and crispy goodness.


The healthiest breakfast cereal probably is Post Shredded Wheat. Here’s how they sell it:


Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy
to understand what is in your food?

With Post Shredded Wheat, it’s easy to be confident
with your breakfast choice. It is made with nothing
but goodness, so go ahead and enjoy a bowl.
Maybe the Washington Post, instead of changing its front-page sell line to “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” should have looked at some cereal boxes. Who wants to look at “dies” and “darkness” first thing every morning?






    A really interesting, helpful and true story. Will put it to use immediately. Many thanks.

  2. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Maureen Died wrote that new Post slogan is “Batman-style”. Batman does well at the box office.

  3. John Corcoran,Jr. says

    I’m a Cheerios guy, or to be more accurate, a Trader Joe’s O’s guy. (I honestly think they taste better.)

    But because of my rampant insecurities I first pour them into a Wheaties box—”The Breakfast of Champions” cereal—so I’m reminded each morning by the boys in advertising that I am a Champion.

    I tried to eat “Great Grains” but many a morning I’d just sit there daydreaming about the “sun kissed dates” of my youth and forget to eat.

  4. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, when asked about the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness”:

    “I love our competition with the Washington Post. I think it’s great. But I think their slogan—Marty Baron please forgive me for saying this—sounds like the next Batman movie.”

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