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Radio Commercials - Avoiding Common Writing Mistakes
A Short Background on Writing Sources
Ever wonder who creates all those ads you listen to on the radio? I'm sure you realize that products for major brands such as Coca Cola, Budweiser, Geico and more are created in the very expensive offices of major advertising agencies. But who writes for the little guy? The local gym, the small chain restaurant, or car dealership?
Typically, spots are written by by a variety of sources: small ad agencies, radio sales people, radio creative/production teams, or the businesses themselves. I work as the Creative Service Director for a radio station uniquely positioned between two major markets. My position is an anomaly in radio any more because the trend is to have radio sales people write the copy. The problem is that most sales people are concentrated on selling, as they should be. They don't possess the time or perhaps the skill set necessary to write good and compelling copy. While they may be adept at extracting information for creating a commercial from the client, it doesn't always translate well into spot form.
Unfortunately, there's also a commonly held belief by small businesses that because they listen to radio, that they can write for radio. They think it's simple. But it's the reason for a lot of less than great spots. My standard comment to business owners who try it is "you are the expert at selling _______ (fill in the blank - spa services, vacuums, cars), but I'm the expert at knowing our listening audience and how they respond. Allow me to give you an example of what might work better."
My station provides our advertisers a free service - copywriting and production of their commercial. So I'm amazed that many businesses feel they need an agency to write their copy. And I'm even more amazed at how many of those ad agencies write really horrendous stuff.
What do I mean by horrendous? Let's look at just a couple of examples. How many of these cliches have you ever heard in a radio commercial:
- Conveniently located
- Spring (or fall, or winter, or summer) is just around the corner
- Friendly knowledgeable sales people
- Hurry in for best selection
- For all your gift-giving needs
- You're going to love...
Why are they horrendous?
- In a 2-state, 7 county listening area - is your business really conveniently located to every listener?
- Most people know what season it is and which one is next...never met anyone who said in early March - seriously? Spring is next up? Dang!
- My personal pet peeve is 'friendly, knowledgeable'. When was the last time you heard a spot that said "Come to our business where the sales people will treat you like crap or ignore you, and really, they don't know the product anyway." Seriously, I hope you strive to hire people who are friendly and know what they're doing...that should be a basic service, not something to tout as special!
- If a business is having a sale, it makes sense that the longer it goes on, the less there is to choose from.
- For all your gift-giving needs...really? My kid wants a car, my spouse wants a leather coat, my parents want a new flat screen...unless the ad is for eBay, I doubt the business can handle ALL my gift-giving needs.
- Please don't assume what I will and will not love!
Numbers, Web Sites and Social Media
Many people listen to the radio in places where a pen and paper aren't easily accessible like their car or in a store. When you begin rattling off numbers like address locators or phone numbers, it becomes wasted ad time because they won't be retained. It is much better to say located on Grand Avenue next to the Morris Mall then it is to say 1245 Grand Avenue. And giving a phone number is all but useless - it's 10 numbers long! Even if you live in a state where giving the area code isn't necessary - we have 9 in New Jersey so it's a must - that's still 7 numbers to remember. If the company has a vanity number it's a help, but most businesses today have a web site. Driving business to a company's web site is recommended because it's generally the same as the name of the business, and all the necessary contact information - phone, physical address, fax number, email - is on the web site.
An exception to using the web site would be when it's not functional, not updated, or difficult to access. For example, there's a local pub called All Stars with a web site of the same name. Problem is, it's not spelled All Stars - it's spelled Alstarz. That takes more explanation than it's worth. Also problematic are web sites with hyphens or dashes, or with extensions like no name dot com slash contests.
Many businesses now have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and feel the need to mention it all, in addition to their phone number and web page. If you're writing copy for this type of business, it's really up to you to explain why advertising schizophrenia is not a good idea! If they're a take out joint, put that phone number in, but make sure it's repeated at least 2-3 times. If it's a spa, drive listeners to the web site so the packages being offered can be perused and perhaps even an appointment can be made online. If a dry cleaner has a phone number and Facebook page with coupons to print, send listeners to the social media option...really, when was the last time you called a dry cleaner?
A Few Last Caveats
Commercials come in varying lengths. 60 seconds are less and less common, but I still write them. More often, you'll find them in 30, 15 and even 10 second increments. Since the general rule of thumb is that you only have 3-4 seconds to grab the listeners attention, the opening line is of utmost importance.
Try not to make your opening sentence a question. The problem with questions is that if the listener mentally answers, 'no', they've tuned out to the rest of your spot. Radio is NOT print advertising or a news story. Shoving every piece of information or statistic in your opener is not advised. So a sentence like "Come to the free open house at Silly School on Grand Avenue, Sunday, March 31st from 7 til 9 pm featuring tours, pony rides and much, much more" is not the way to go!
Many advertisers seem to like the 'skit' approach. Unless you have the writing and voice actor skills to pull this off, avoid it. Nothing sounds more stupid then 2 people trying to sound natural as they discuss a product. "Hi Suzie...I see you bought the new 300z snowblower." "Yes Dale, I went to XYZ Hardware at 3245 South Street in Boise. They had everything for all my snowblowing needs - and at 50 percent off." "Really? How can I get one?" "Just call 1-888-999-55-55." Seriously? When was the last time you spoke with ANYONE who could rattle off the address and phone number of the store where they purchased something? If you've got to use this approach, make sure to leave all the specifics like contact info, pricing, etc to an announcer who comes in after the scene is played out. Also try to write the way people speak - in contractions and even slang if appropriate so the speech doesn't sound stilted.
My last warning is to avoid the 'creative' trap. One of my pet peeves is when a sales person tells me to 'be creative'. As my former boss used to say - do you want creative or effective? It's possible to be so creative/humorous/cutting edge that who and what the client does is lost in the creativeness of the spot. I use this example for my writing students. A number of years ago there was a Superbowl TV spot. There were cowboys on horseback attempting to herd thousands of cats. The visual was hysterical, but I have no memory of who the client was or what they sold beyond the idea that whatever the problem was that they solved, it was as difficult as herding cats. Another thing I've found with the 'creative' angle is that it generally means the sales rep isn't really sure WHAT the client wants and so they act as if creative freedom is a gift they are bestowing. That's when it's time to call the client yourself to ascertain what direction they want to go in. I'm all for expressing creativity as long as I'm given a platform to springboard from and the message is clear and concise!