by Ed Thompson
The empty page challenges me like a white glove slapped across my face to mark the beginning of the duel. Writing can be like that. Armed with only two bullet points from a rookie Account Executive and the phrase, “the client wants something creative,” we are bound by honor to take ten paces, turn and create! As they say in New Ulm, Minnesota, “Oofta!”
So before the writer’s block starts building itself into a wall, I remember the advice of one professional writer: “You’re a writer. So write.” I pause for a moment. I clear my head. Then I say a short prayer and go. By the time my fingers start working the keyboard, I have the foundation of the idea and the building begins. Words and phrases are combined to form the sentences, which join together and make the idea take shape until it becomes a story. Then the story, like a juniper must be pruned and trimmed to fit the sixty-second format. Simple, huh? But, in the real world I’m working to make the four p.m. deadline for Elliot’s Barnacle Bin in a noise-infested cubicle while one or two AE’s stand behind me asking questions like, “where’s the CD for Bob’s Cable?” or saying something silly like, “Hey! Ed, when you get a minute.”
Still, more often than not, I do try to come up with something that will make a difference. Roy Williams wrote that to be a great writer, one must read great writing. Not so that we can learn how to copy them, but so that we can learn how to tell a good story.
So I read great writers. I read the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln. Like I said, I read great writers, not necessarily great authors. These men gave us the three most important documents in the short history of our republic. Writings which continue to change lives and shape men’s hearts with their simple truths. Words, which, to this day are profound enough in their honesty and strength, to arouse men to take action that they know may cost them their very lives.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Wow! One sentence. A mere 35 words, which laid the foundation for an entire nation!
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Another single sentence that provides the basic idea of what our government is allowed to do.
“…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Just thirty of only 266 words that are the keystone atop the marvelous arch of a glorious experiment.
What do these magnificent words have to do with writing a commercial? Everything. While a commercial doesn’t carry the enormous power of the writings of Jefferson, Madison, or Lincoln, they do tap exactly the same emotions which give these words their might. Their truths are within us all. They were there before they were written. They remain so after. For while societies and civilizations may change, emotions do not. They are the only constant in our world.
I recently wrote a commercial for a heart center. I could have gone through the laundry list of services along with naming all the doctors who work there. However, it would have had no effect. But when I write about my grandfather who taught me to shake a person’s hand, took me to movies, helped me put together puzzles, then died of heart disease, I establish an emotional contact with the listener that has strength and power. They can relate on a very personal level. Maybe they’ve never lost a grandfather to heart disease, but they know someone who has. But that’s not the whole story. The spot ends with me learning to take care of my heart by changing how I live my life so that I can be there for my three-year old granddaughter whom I hope to teach to shake a person’s hand, take to a movie, and put together a puzzle. (Check out the spot on this month's RAP CD.)
Those emotions carry weight and they can be a part of every spot I write. A sports bar has thirty-five TV’s to watch a game. So what? So do several other sports bars. But, if that sports bar’s spot plays within the Cubs game on our sports station, I can tap into the optimism of nearly every Cub fan when I write how they can watch the Cubs battle their way to the World Series. Then I can bring them back to reality with a funny line that reminds them that the Cubs haven’t been to the Series since 1945. After all, while optimistic, Cub fans are also realistic. But they still love their Cubs. The emotion is real and honest. That’s why it carries weight.
Does it translate to sales? That’s not my job. While the writings of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln may stir men to take action, which may mean life or death, I do understand that I’m only writing a commercial. My only job is to carry a message in such a way so that it is heard by the listener. After that, it’s up to the listener to choose. And isn’t that what freedom is all about?