How to Write Great Radio Ads
by Mark Carpenter
As social media takes over the planet, ad schools are forgetting that the medium of radio still exists. In fact, studies show that consumers of all ages are listening to as much radio as they ever have.
So wouldn’t it be nice if young marketing people actually knew how to write radio ads? Since I haven’t seen a radio script in a single portfolio I’ve looked at in the last two years, maybe the time is ripe for some cranky old copy bastard to give a refresher course. Well, I definitely fit that description, so let’s get to it.
LESSON ONE: Before writing a word, nail down the specific product benefit.
As in any other medium, your best creative solution will come from the product benefit. Write it on a note card and tape it to your computer screen as you concept. Don’t let it leave your mind. A clear, concise product benefit will always lead you to a terrific executional idea. Let me show you what I mean. Look at the following award-winning radio commercial for Harry Singh’s Caribbean Restaurant in Minneapolis, created by Fallon McElligott Rice in the late 1980s:
ANNCR: Harry Singh’s Caribbean Restaurant. The spiciest food in the Twin Cities.
See what I mean? This simple, brilliant little spot sprang totally from the unique product benefit — really hot food. The copywriter didn’t let himself get distracted with the restaurant’s address, phone number, hours or any of that boilerplate crap. Instead, he used every precious second to illustrate the product benefit with the long scream. If he’d tried to jam secondary information into the commercial, this ingenious execution wouldn’t have been possible.
Keep your eyes on the main benefit and you’ll never go wrong.
LESSON TWO: Decide which kind of radio-commercial format best fits your product benefit.
There are basically four kinds of radio commercials: announcer read, situational, jingle/donut and live/remote. Announcer reads are just what they sound like — a lone announcer reads a script. Situational spots are usually slice-of-life skits with two or more talents. Jingle/donuts are commercials that begin and end with a product jingle and feature an announcer read in the middle. Live/remotes are commercials ad-libbed by a DJ who is either on the air or broadcasting live from a mobile unit at the client’s store.
The main benefit of the product you’re selling will help you determine the format you should use. For instance, products with complicated benefits like insurance or banking lend themselves to single announcer reads. There are fewer distractions. However, for products with simple benefits like restaurants and malls, you should consider a situational spot. There’s more time to build a story that illustrates the benefit. If your client is advertising a sale or some other limited-time offer, jingle/donut or live/remote formats are your best bet. They lend a sense of immediacy.
Let me demonstrate. Below is a :30 radio commercial I wrote for a cellular company in 1992. The message was simple — give a cellular phone as a gift.
DJ: This is Radio Loveline. You’re on the air.
WOMAN: (OVER PHONE) Yeah, how do I tell my husband his Valentine’s Day presents stink?
DJ: How bad are they?
WOMAN: Last year, wiper fluid. Year before, mud flaps.
DJ: Why don’t you put a First Cellular Omaha ad somewhere he’ll see it? The new Nokia 250 is small, powerful and makes a great gift.
WOMAN: Great! I’ll tape it to the valve grinder.
DJ: You have a valve grinder?
WOMAN: Valentine’s Day, 1989.
ANNCR: First Cellular Omaha. Five locations throughout the metro.
The benefit of the phone — it made a great gift — was so simple that it gave me time to create a little :30 story that strengthened the message. A straight announcer read would have been a snoozer and the immediacy of a jingle/donut or live/remote spot would have been wasted on this benefit.
LESSON THREE: Use unique words and odd phrases in your copy.
The reason most radio advertising is so wretched is because it all sounds the same — “The savings are heating up at Blah Blah Toyota,” “Here at Blah Blah Community Hospital, patient care is our commitment,” “Customer service is job one at Blah Blah Insurance.” Need I go on?
If you’ve got a single announcer and only 30 seconds, for heaven’s sake give the guy something interesting to say! Use words and phrases that you don’t hear too often, copy that will snap listeners out of their audio trance. Take a look at the spot below I wrote for a lawn service a few years ago:
MAN: I live on a street full of yard Nazis. You know, those idiots who mow twice a week and never miss a blade of grass. I don’t know how they get that perfect crisscross pattern, but it’s starting to torque me off. Meanwhile, I work 12-hour days and my lawn looks like the Serengeti. That’s why I hired Patton Yard Care. They’re fast, dependable, inexpensive and most importantly … good. Now my lawn looks gorgeous. I shouldn’t be surprised. You remember what Patton did to the Nazis.
Words and phrases like “Nazi,” “idiot” and “torque me off” tend to slap you right in the ears. Famous art director George Lois once said, “Advertising should be like poison gas. It should grip you by the throat.” So true, especially in radio.
LESSON FOUR: Don’t include boilerplate information unless it’s very general.
I’ve noticed an idiotic new trend in radio advertising lately — repeating the client’s phone number and address 800 times. “For the best steaks in town, come to Blah Blah Restaurant at 2483 South 33rd Street, 555-2347. That’s 2483 South 33rd Street, 555-2347!” I have no idea why this obnoxious practice has come back into vogue again, but it’s stupid and pointless.
Think about it: When was the last time you ever wrote down or remembered an advertiser’s address or phone number from a radio spot? Be honest. Never, right? A good radio copywriter shouldn’t have to include this tedious boilerplate information. The commercial should be so interesting that consumers look up the client’s phone number and address on their own — because the copy compelled them to.
Any exceptions to this rule? Sure. If the boilerplate information is general — “Five locations in Denver” — you can get away with it. Including website addresses is also OK. Why? Because people can remember names and words a lot better than a long series of numbers. Try this simple test:
1. “Shop at VanDyke Market. Visit us at vandykemarket.com.” 2. “Shop at VanDyke Market. Visit us at 12903 West 141st Avenue. 555-4130.”
Which one is easier to remember? See my point?
LESSON FIVE: Don’t use weasel words.
Weasel words include “quality,” “value,” “service” and “performance.” I call them weasel words because they’re used by ad hacks who are either too lazy or too stupid to clearly describe the product benefit. These words mean nothing. In fact, they mean less than nothing. They’re totally subjective. One man’s “service” is another man’s “this place sucks.”
You hear lots of weasel words in radio spots that clients write for themselves — “Hi, I’m Hank Blah Blah, president of Blah Blah Motors. Here at Blah Blah Motors, we’re committed to quality.” (Oh yeah, I forgot to say that weasel words are almost always preceded by “We’re committed to…”) Hank Blah Blah may think he’s committed to quality, but the truth is he has no idea why his company is any better than his competitors. A truly great advertising copywriter should be able to research Blah Blah Motors and determine exactly what the company’s unique selling point is.
Let’s say you had your radio on and heard, “Hi, I’m Hank Blah Blah, president of Blah Blah Motors. If you bring your car to our service department before 7:30 a.m. on weekdays, we’ll fix it and have it ready for you the same day!” There’s a specific benefit you can sink your teeth into. Beats the hell out of “committed to quality,” don’t you agree?
LESSON SIX: Avoid radio-advertising cliches.
What are radio-advertising cliches? Tedious little shortcuts that copywriters have used for decades to avoid doing something original:
• “On location” intros —”We’re here at the (insert place) to see if (insert product) really removes stains.”
• “The boss is crazy” spots — “I’m Jerry, assistant sales manager here at Kelbert Ford, and owner Kip Kelbert is selling 2011 Fords at INSANE prices!”
• Forced situations — “Gosh, Judy, you’ve lost so much weight! What’s your secret?”
• Spots with seasonal spokespeople — (BELA LUGOSI ACCENT) “Dracula here, and the Halloween savings at Miller Costumes are SCARY!”
• Melodramatic “first person” patient stories — “At first, I thought it was just a funny-looking mole. But then it started to bleed …”
You get the idea (or lack of it). My advice to all aspiring young copywriters out there is to approach every commercial with the attitude that you want to create something that’s never been heard on radio before. The following is a spot that I won a regional creative award for in 1995. I went into it determined to write a commercial that sold hard but was completely whacked!
ANNCR: Recently, we asked Lincoln residents what they felt like when they heard the word “bank.” 28 percent said, “Draining my septic tank.” 12 percent said, “Long and invasive hernia surgery.” While 50 percent said, “Working with friendly professionals who have convenient branch locations and ATMs all over town.” We discovered this 50 percent were customers of Havelock Bank. Which explained why they felt so good about banking. And why they had no trouble lifting furniture. Havelock Bank. We’ll make you feel better about banking. Member FDIC.
Yes, it’s nuts. But at least it isn’t cliche.
LESSON SEVEN: Don’t skimp on production.
Take it from someone who’s been writing radio for 25 years, the most brilliant script will die a horrible death if you use crappy talent and cheapo audio production. I learned this the hard way early in my career. My first job was with an ad agency with skinflint clients. I had to produce my spots at radio stations using exhausted DJs in the half hour between the Morning Zoo and Hot Scott’s Rockin’ Afternoon Drive. What possible chance did I have? I could have written copy like David Ogilvy and my spots still would have sounded like audio turds.
My advice: Never produce radio ads for your client unless you use professional talent at a commercial recording studio. If your client won’t spend the money, either resign the account or refuse to offer the radio option. I’m serious. The whole reason people hate radio commercials is because 98 percent of them are produced at a radio station with crappy talent. Don’t add to the pile.
So where do you find professional talent? There are dozens of great nonunion voice talent companies around the country. I love Soundscapes in Little Rock, Ark., ProComm in Fletcher, N.C., Studio Center in Virginia Beach, Va., and Earworks, also in Virginia Beach. Simply send your script to one of these companies and they’ll give you an estimate for talent and production. Many of them will also include a free audition if you ask.
Or do like I do: Find an excellent commercial production studio in your city, insist on working with their best engineer, and have them electronically connect with the voice-talent firms listed above. That way, it’s easier to direct your talent and mix the spot afterwards. I use a terrific little local studio called The Mixing Room and work with one of its engineer/owners, Kurt Labenz. We’ve been recording together for 20 years, and he knows EXACTLY how I like my spots to sound.
So there you have it, seven tips for writing great radio ads. If your business needs help creating a great radio ad, contact SKAR.