Crash Blossoms: The Risk of Headline Ambiguity

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Self-help | 0 comments

Photo by Yan Krukau

If you heard someone talking about crash blossom, you may assume it’s a new band. Or perhaps the latest in organic gardening? Or maybe you’re like me and wouldn’t even have a guess, so you’d just look it up! 

Here’s what you’d learn: A crash blossom is a marketing and journalism term that refers to unclear or even misleading headlines. The origin of the term is the best part – it came from a real headline that had multiple interpretations.

Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms

Some readers wondered what the violinist had to do with crash blossoms – and, for that matter, what crash blossoms were. The article’s author meant that a violinist, whose father was killed in a JAL plane crash, was succeeding (or blossoming) in her career. 

Like most crash blossoms, the reader was able to figure out the intended meaning if they just thought about it for a minute. Think about these:

Police Help Dog Bite Victim

Heavy Pedestrian Traffic Problematic

McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers

It’s safe to say no one thought there was a police department working with dogs to locate and bite people. 

I don’t think people wondered for long if there was a lot of pedestrian traffic or if the pedestrians were too heavy. But maybe they thought it was a bridge capacity issue? 

And I definitely don’t think anyone thought McDonald’s popped the Holy Grail into one of their friers as a thank you to potato farmers, though I do suspect they were briefly confused about what the article was actually about. 

Titles and headlines, mostly because of their brevity, can cause confusion. The author may scoff at the alternative interpretations of their work, but that isn’t what matters. If your audience misreads your title, you didn’t craft a clear message.

Do these ambiguous titles do any harm?

We see humorous examples of signs sharing this kind of ambiguity on social media often – it’s the same concept! Character limitations mean writers sometimes must leave out words that, in hindsight, are actually pretty important.

Wash & Vacuum Senior Citizens $15.95

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Touching Wire Causes Instant Death $200 Fine

If I’m looking to have a senior citizen washed and vacuumed, I may think I’ve found just the right place! But most of us would assume that the sign refers to a senior citizen discount available at the car wash ahead. 

We may initially feel frustrated at the advice to be prepared for the thing we can’t possibly prepare for because – by design – it is unknown, but we’d probably quickly realize the sign is just advising that we should remain alert. 

And we may think that fining someone $200 for something that has already caused their death is more than a little unnecessary, but again, most people would realize that the sign is meant to be a serious warning about an action that could cause death and will, if caught alive, result in a significant fine for the offender.

Crash blossoms are all around us. They’re an easy mistake to make and rarely leave people genuinely confused. So what’s the problem?


Especially if you are sharing serious or potentially upsetting information, you don’t want to be ambiguous or worse – have your content interpreted as an inappropriate joke. For many digital profiles, your goal is to be seen as well-spoken, thoughtful experts in your field. A confusing title usually doesn’t align with an organization’s goal.

Reputation and Professionalism

If a title is unclear and easily misinterpreted, most people would assume it was unintentional (again, unless ambiguity and humor are part of your brand). There’s an old saying that any press is good press, but it’s common for potential customers, employers, or the general public to research people and companies before engaging with them. So with digital research being common and so easy, is the old saying still true? Or has the ease of research made it critical that we clearly communicate at all times?

Search Results

If your mistake attracts a lot of people, but none of them are interested in your work, it’s hard to count that as a “win” as a marketer. There may be a positive ripple effect, but if the title is misunderstood, there’s a good chance your information isn’t getting to the right people.

Toxic Contributions

Depending on the content, there’s also the risk that your title may upset people. They may click, comment, or share because they’re upset as a result of misunderstanding the title. Can you honestly say you accomplished your engagement goal if that’s the case? If yes, what was the cost? It’s important to remember that what we put out into the world affects people.

How do you avoid crash blossoms?

There are a few easy ways to avoid crash blossoms – and different techniques work for different people. See if any of these resonate with you.

  1. Read headlines first, last, and separate from posts. Sometimes it’s simply making sure your review process includes checking for ambiguity in your titles, headlines, subheadings, etc. 
  2. Use punctuation to clarify meaning. Sometimes punctuation in a headline will look different than in regular text – and that’s okay. Could you say Police Help Dog-Bite Victim? Maybe…maybe not. But it’s something you can play around with. (And if you want to read a wonderful book on the importance of punctuation, check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves – it is informative and funny!)
  3. Empower small words. Sometimes we’re briefer than we have to be and we just need to take a fresh look at the title. Would Police Help Victim of Dog Bite fit? 
  4. Write a few titles. Help for Bite Victim, Police Help Victim of Dog Bite, Police Help Victim of Dog…what title shares the most important aspects of your content?
  5. Get feedback. Create a routine feedback loop – help others and ask them to help you take a fresh look at titles, headings throughout your content, excerpts, etc.

Almost all of these involve slowing down a little bit! Take pride in your work and know that you have a community willing to give you feedback. 


About the Author

Dr. Amy Jauman is an author, ghostwriter, international speaker, podcast researcher, and university professor. She is a certified social media strategist and certified digital marketing professional with a master’s degree in experiential education and a doctorate in organization development. Amy also holds a graduate certificate in crime analysis from Boston University and is an active member of the International Association of Crime Analysts. In addition to her ghostwriting projects, Amy has authored three textbooks, five ebooks, and multiple articles and blog posts.


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