Business Lessons from New Yorker Cartoons: What's Your Universal Caption?

February 28, 2018

For years the New Yorker has been running a caption contest on its back page, where readers submit captions to go with a punchline-less cartoon. Winners receive a signed print of the final cartoon. It’s a brilliant, sticky content gimmick, especially for a print magazine – it’s interactive and addictive and keeps people coming back for more. (How many people subscribe to the magazine but only read the cartoons?)

In May, the magazine put out a call for a universal caption that could fit any New Yorker cartoon, and this week they rounded up some of their favorite submissions. You may remember that last year, Charles Lavoie proposed “Christ, what an asshole” as the universal caption for all New Yorker cartoons, and frankly, most of the new submissions don’t quite measure up to that brilliant all-purpose phrase.

Here are a few of the favorites chosen by the New Yorker’s staff:

  • “It’s like we’re in a New Yorker cartoon.”
  • “You gonna finish that?”
  • “I wish I’d never been drawn.”
  • “It’s been a year and I still don’t understand LOST.”

My favorite of the listed options is definitely “Well, this is awkward” – it seems to really get at the meat of what’s driving almost every New Yorker cartoon, an awkward situation (say, realizing your wife is a horse). See how well it works with these cartoons, semi-randomly chosen from a Google image search?

New Yorker Cartoon

Universal Caption

New Yorker Cartoon Contest

I came up with a little universal caption of my own, too:

New Yorker Cartoon

Universal Caption

New Yorker Universal Caption Contest

Works like a charm.

What’s both fun and instructive about this is that it forces you to look for a common thread among all New Yorker cartoons – what is it about New Yorker cartoons that makes them New Yorker cartoons and not Garfield or Far Side or XKCD cartoons? What is their personality? Their defining characteristic? Their value proposition?

You know I was going to bring this back to Internet marketing, didn’t you? Why not try this exercise with your business offerings – is there a single “caption” that would work for all your products and services? Can you describe everything you do in a single phrase or statement that wraps up why you’re special? For a creative toy company it might be something like “Making learning fun.” For a software company it might be “Empowering entrepreneurs.”

Large, successful companies tend to have these kinds of catchphrases integrated into their marketing and consumers may even be quite familiar with them. For SMBs or startups it may be a little harder to nail down exactly what you’re about – after all, your business is still growing and evolving. But it’s worth formulating anyway – think of it as a more advanced, customer-facing version of the elevator pitch you need when you’re starting a business. Your universal caption is your hook. Do you know what it is?

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Have a great weekend, y'all.

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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