By Roy H. Williams
Shakespeare would argue for fifteen-second radio ads, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But W.C. Fields would suggest sixties, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” I agree with both.
When people ask me, “What’s the best length radio ad?” I always think of Abe Lincoln’s answer when asked, “How long should a man’s legs be?”
Long enough to reach the ground.
In other words, a radio ad should be exactly as long as it takes to say what needs to be said.
Use 60-second ads when…
1. …your message is complex. Better to write a 60 that makes your message clear than a 30 that leaves doubts and questions. (Unfortunately, many advertisers believe their messages to be far more complex than they really are. About two-thirds of all 60-second radio ads on the air today would be much more effective as tightened-up thirties.)
2. …you need to include specific details to help persuade. Specifics are always more believable than generalities. Close the loophole. Answer the question lurking in the listener’s mind. But don’t bore your audience by answering questions no one was asking.
3. …you’re in a business category that’s new and not easily understood. If first you must create the realization of need before you can sell your solution, this can easily take 60 seconds.
4. …you need to “baffle them with bull.” If you sell a generic commodity and your strategy is for people to buy from you simply because they like you better, you’re going to need a world-class creative team. These ads are, without question, the hardest of all ads to write. But they can also be the most entertaining. These are the times when your production people can shine like the sun. Inspire them but don’t instruct them. Buy them food, give them praise, remind them that they’re geniuses and yes, everyone misunderstands them but you. Production people live to create ads like these, but you’ve got to give them time, encouragement and freedom. And maybe beer.
Use 30-second ads when…
1. …your product or service category is clearly understood and you’re making an easy-to-understand offer. Say it plain. Say it straight. Eliminate all but the most essential adjectives and adverbs. Replace clichés and predictable phrases with unanticipated wording. Focus on verbs and use as many as possible. Make one point per ad, but make it powerfully in the script. Please, for the love of God, don’t write a weak message and then try to compensate for it with powerful delivery (vocal inflection, dramatic music, sound effects.) The seventies are over.
Use 15-second ads when…
1. …you have an incredibly powerful, simple message. Don’t screw it up by blah, blah, blahing for thirty seconds when you can say it more powerfully in fifteen. Sadly, many ad writers fall into the trap described so eloquently by Blaise Pascal, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” At least twenty-five percent of the thirties on most stations would really work better as fifteens. But most stations aren’t willing to sell fifteen-second ads at a price that makes them attractive. Even more difficult is training ad writers how to uncover the vital, core message that can be powerfully communicated in fifteen short seconds. Tight, powerful ads are hard to write, but definitely worth the effort.
2. …you’re in a business category in which no one advertises but you. When path dominance has been acquiesced to you by your competitors and simple name recognition will likely be enough to make customers think of your name when they need what you sell, don’t be an idiot, buy fifteens and mentions.
Use mentions when…
1. …you sell a commodity in a crowded marketplace and your strategy is to go for Top-Of-Mind-Awareness. (I’ve long suggested that radio stations fund a TOMA study every two years. Few things are as valuable in the eyes of advertisers as these revealing “marketplace snapshots.”)
2. …you merely want to add additional frequency to a schedule that is delivering barely-sufficient frequency of your thirty or sixty-second message. But don’t fool yourself by calculating a reach and frequency analysis that lumps the mentions into the same schedule as the thirties and/or sixties. The schedule of full-length ads must deliver sufficient frequency on its own. Mentions are merely gravy for these schedules. And like gravy, they’re really not much use when there is insufficient meat on the plate.
The most common mistake is taking too long to say too little. The second most common mistake is allowing your budget to dictate the length of your ad. Never try to squeak by with fifteens and mentions when what you really need is thirties or sixties. Sacrifice reach, never ad length. Buy a less expensive daypart. Or a smaller station.
Make your message exactly as long as it needs to be.