7 Dirty Words

By Ed Thompson

There are 7 dirty words that should never, ever be used in a radio commercial. Not the 7 words that got George Carlin in trouble with the FCC back in the ‘70s. Nope. I’m referring to those seven words that make up a phone number. Why? It’s because the human brain is not designed to remember a series of numbers. It’s designed for language. In other words, words. Descriptive and evocative words which the brain translates into pictures to understand and communicate ideas. It’s genetic. A million years of evolution have deemed it so and no amount of repeated readings of a phone number in a radio commercial will change that. That’s like hoping a pig will fly if you just keep asking it to do so.

I have a friend who can remember any phone number he has ever been given, even a number which, has been disconnected or is no longer in service. He’s a freak. The rest of us are doing well to remember our own Social Security numbers, address and zip code, home phone number, cell phone number, and office number. When I go to make a deposit into my bank, don’t bother asking me my account number. That’s just too much for my overworked, underpowered frontal lobes to absorb.

Why does the human brain loose numbers like that? How is it that when you say six five nine three nine two zero it disappears into the ether? But when we say the apples fall from trees in fall we can picture a tree in an orchard, branches waving in the slight breeze of a warm October afternoon, giving the last push the bright red apple needs to leave it’s branch and fall to earth with a muffled thud. Each phrase has exactly seven words yet the numbers disappear while the apples paint a picture, which evokes images, memories, emotions, and even physical sensations. Why? (Anyone who’s ever read Roy Williams, get ready to do the Arnold Horshack dance.) You guessed it. Broca’s Area. Broca’s Area is for the understanding of language and speech. And because of it’s very close proximity to the Frontal Lobe (which handles, among other things, emotion, intellect, physical reactions, and personality), the Parietal Lobe (which handles some language) and Wernicke’s Area (which surrounds the auditory cortex and is thought to be essential for understanding and formulating speech) it’s an easy jump for the words to be translated into images which have an impact on people.

So why does it continue? Why do we continue to insert phone numbers into spots? “Well, that’s what the client wants.” Please. That’s lazy and unprofessional. If the client wanted to pay us to drive a nail through his foot, would we take him up on it? No! Why? It would hurt him and that’s exactly what a phone number in a radio ad does. It hurts the client because the listener can’t remember it.

We’re professional marketers. We’re supposed to advise the client on the best way to use what we’re selling. Directory, newspaper, web, billboard and television are all ads, but they’re only ads in the same way a needle-nose and channel-locks are pliers. They are built for very different and specific purposes.

So how do we stop it? Well, say to your client, “No.” It is possible to tell your client no and not lose the sale. The standard argument I hear is often, “Well I’m the client. I’m paying you a lot of money and I should get what I want.” Here’s what you do. You look him straight in the eye and say proudly, “You’re right. You are paying me a lot of money and that’s precisely why I won’t let you waste it on something that won’t work.” The phone book has been around more than a hundred years. When people don’t know a number, they look it up!

“For more information, call 659-3920!” Screw that! If your client has a website, put that in the spot instead. Why? Because www.mybusiness.com is easier to remember than 659-3920. We’re in the communications business. Our only way to make money is by passing information from our clients to our listeners. Now if we’re going to be more successful, we have to stop working against them. Their brains are designed a certain way. We have to keep playing to that.

Promise me. No more dirty words in a radio ad.

Postscript: In July, we created an ad for a client that, of course, absolutely had to have the phone number in it. No matter how many logical arguments we used to get our client not to include the number in the ad, we ended up having to use it anyway. Such is life. Three weeks later, the client called the AE with a complaint that some customers had called him on the phone to tell him that they couldn’t understand the phone number in his commercials. (This is the part where you reread the previous sentence, scratch your head and say, “huh?”) You read it correctly. Customers actually called the client to tell him they couldn’t understand his phone number in the commercial. When he asked them how they were able to call him to tell him that, they said they looked the number up in the book.

You’d think there’s a happy ending to this story. There isn’t. The client insisted that we re-record the phone number in his ads so that they were clearer and easier to understand.

The dog barks but the caravan moves on.

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