Thinking Inside the Box

By Ed Thompson

When I saw Justin Timberlake rip away the leather and satin cloth that covered Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl, my eyes became as big as saucers. As I recall, the first words out of my mouth were, “Whoa! Janet’s sporting some interesting jewelry these days.” Who knew that this would be the boob that broke the camel’s back and that it would be radio that would bear most of the burden.

Over the last decade, radio has been pushing the envelope of taste and decency. Howard Stern, Opie & Anthony, and Bob & Tom are just a few examples of syndicated morning shows which have pushed the limits of the decency bubble. Dozens of local morning shows followed suit. And it wasn’t long before the commercials, which aired in those shows, would begin to reflect the content.

I’ve written and produced some of those commercials. Tattoo and body piercing places are “push the envelope” kind of clients, and some parlor owners love it when they can tweak the locals. One spot I produced for the promoter of a tattoo and piercing convention loved the ads I wrote and produced, which featured a young woman going through security at the airport and all the fun which ensued when the metal detector identified her jewelry. Lots of innuendo there. Or there’s the blatant mention of laxatives, a handgun, and a monkey’s anus in a campaign, which a friend of mine wrote for another body modification parlor. Funny stuff. But what it lacked in taste, it more than made up for in buzz on the street, both pro and con.

But the landscape has changed considerably in the last few months, and listeners are getting restless. Complaints are rising and more people are willing to put their complaints in writing and send them to radio management, the offending client, and of course, to the FCC. Now, before anyone gets up in arms about censorship and defending the First Amendment of the US Constitution, let me make one very important point. The First Amendment guarantees the right of POLITICAL speech. Not COMMERCIAL speech. If commercials enjoyed First Amendment protection, we would have nothing like truth in advertising laws, and cigarette commercials would still be heard. Just last week, Clear Channel CEO John Hogan issued a statement to CC’s advertisers that they will “fight” for the First Amendment but not “indecency.” The difference is, what Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken say on the air is untouchable. What I write and produce in a spot must pass muster.

So what do we do if what some of our clients sell is legal but, considered by some, indecent? How do we serve those clients and yet keep the standards of decency, which many GM’s are setting for their clusters? How do we write and produce ads for the “gentlemen’s clubs,” the tattoo and piercing parlors, or the adult novelty stores, which have every legal right to advertise and do business without blowing the cork of some listener watchdogs? By doing the same thing we’re supposed to be doing every day. Be creative.

In our market, we have two competing adult novelty store chains. Store A is the big dog. It gets lots of press and TV from its owner who is serving several months in jail for selling “obscene” material. Not only does Store A get a lot of media attention, their radio ads like to stretch the line before it’s crossed. Every Valentine’s Day we have to sweat whether or not to run the annual spot which promotes that if you find a red heart tag on the item, you get the savings. You guessed it, the “heart on sale.” Thanks to Janet and Justin, we didn’t run that spot this year. In its place we ran some lame backup ad that had the laundry list of products with a few 1000 hertz beeps and wolf whistles to make it sound naughtier than it really was. But because these ads were produced out of our market, we had little control over the content. We either ran the “real” naughty ad, or we ran the lame one.

But Store B was a different story. They originally wanted to compete with Store A with a saucy ad themselves. But, after a detailed interview with the Store B owners, we found that more women were coming to their stores. So we developed a campaign that portrayed women in the ads without portraying them as “sexy vixens” but as real-life people going to Store B in a real-life way. Not once do we mention the how sexy the products are. No innuendo is used to imply anything. We painted a real-life picture instead.

The real-life scenario came from one of those rare weeks away from the kids, which my wife and I enjoyed last summer. The little ones were away with grandma at church camp, and my wife and I got to go out on a date. It was fun. We had dinner and a movie. We even went to the casino to blow ten bucks in the nickel slots. But on the way home, not wanting the evening to end, my wife suggested we stop at Store B to see “what’s what.” What appears in the ad is nearly a word-for-word account of what happened that night. There is nothing dirty in the ad. There is nothing for which I am ashamed in the ad. And there is nothing that would make a parent cringe if they heard this ad while their child was in the back seat. Check out the ad on this month’s RAP CD.

Creativity is imagination born in reality. By knowing where the boundaries lie, we can find new ways to expand ourselves and yet, stay within the boundary. It may just be that sometimes you don’t have to the cross the line to push the envelope.

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