Three Guaranteed Effective Commercial Copywriting Hacks

by Tim Burt

As the Production Director for two massive FM radio stations in a large market, I’ve written, recorded, and produced thousands upon thousands of pieces of commercial copy. I also help businesses world-wide with their marketing in virtually every platform (radio/television/direct mail, web, etc.).

What I’ll share with you today are tips to make those scripts that make you groan, grit your teeth in anger, or laugh hysterically (because they’re just plain awful), better. Immediately. As in, before you turn on your microphone. 

It is (or should be) part of your job to improve scripts - regardless of where they appear. Yes, this includes web copy as well. However, these tips do come with a warning. The first time you use these “copy hacks”, you must be prepared to explain your reasoning to whomever provided you said copy as to why you are changing it. Above everything else, the reason should be to make it “better”. 

By “better” I DON’T mean to make the commercial “more creative”, “funnier”, or adding different/unnecessary music and/or sound effects. My definition of “better” is creating a clear, easily understood message to the advertiser’s targeted audience that they will then act upon. Our goal here is to ultimately bring money back into the business that has decided to advertise.

I’m going to give you my proven reasons, complete with the rationale to back them up. Now that you’ve been warned, proceed at your own risk.

COPY HACK #1: SHARPEN YOUR SHARPIE

The first thing I do when I get a script - regardless of its origin - from someone in sales, an ad agency, or someone in the promotions department, is read it through. Then I’ll read it again. Roughly 95+ percent of the time, I’ll immediately begin marking out entire sentences. Or paragraphs. Sometimes, I’ll reject the entire thing... except for one tiny exception.

You see, I’m looking for one specific thing. I want that particular advertiser’s competitive advantage to be stated clearly. I (and other copy pros) call this their “Unique Selling Proposition.” In other words, what makes this particular business different from their competition? If you cannot answer that question from the content of the copy that was handed to you, then the advertiser (and ultimately the account executive) have a massive problem on their hands. 

Here’s a quick way to tell if there is no “Unique Selling Proposition” in the copy you’re holding in your hands... while you scramble to find some other unsuspecting co-worker to have their voice attached to it. Take the name of the business, and replace it everywhere in the copy you see it with the name of their direct competition. For instance, replace “McDonald’s” with “Burger King.” If the ultimate message of the advertisement doesn’t change, then there is nothing unique about the advertiser who’s paying to air the commercial. 

How do you fix this? You have to ask the right questions to whomever gave you the copy. If it’s a salesperson, then they’ve (most likely) met the client. They’ve been to their store. They have experienced that business from the perspective you’re trying to convey. 

First, put yourself in the role of the consumer. Then ask the salesperson, why shouldn’t I go to their competitor(s)? Virtually every time, they’ll start telling you what their “Unique Selling Proposition” (a.k.a. ‘U. S. P.’”) really is. THIS is the one thing you should be seeking. 

For instance, let’s say we’re talking about a tire shop. I’ll bet that the script you’ve been handed is full of those tired radio cliché’s (friendly, knowledgeable staff, open until 8, been in business since 19XX, etc.). Instead, ask the account executive “if I need four tires for a Chevy Tahoe, why should I go to your guy when the place across the street is $200 cheaper?” They should start listing all the things you’ll get for that extra $200: free lifetime balancing, bring your car in anytime and they’ll check your air pressure, etc. 

Now, out of that list, pick the most important, unique thing. This should be the basis for you advertisement. Build your script around that, and don’t be afraid to re-write it completely. The salesperson can massage the client as to why it is truly better than what they were originally given. 

COPY HACK #2: RE-SEQUENCE SENTENCES

Don’t be married to a script in its original form. If you think of a script in terms of just sentences, as opposed to one giant screaming statement, you and the business will be far better off. Sometimes, the U. S. P. is actually listed in the copy. If it is, be very thankful... because they’ve just saved you a massive step (this usually happens by blind luck, but I digress...). However, it’s normally buried under worthless sentences and set-up copy that distracts the targeted audience from realizing what the singular, important message is. 

Is the U. S. P. in the third or fourth sentence? Move it. Do this: take the sentence that contains the U. S. P. and put it as the first line. You then have the rest of the commercial to elaborate on this potentially life-altering statement/benefit/sales offer. This will make the commercial have far more impact. 

Bonus tip: removing worthless and repetitive sentences will free up space for you to further describe the U. S. P. I call this “addition by subtraction”, which ties directly to...

COPY HACK #3: A RADIO COMMERCIAL IS NOT A BROCHURE

Burn this word into your brain: minimalism. I employ minimalism not just for the sake of simplicity, but more importantly, focus. Remember, the audience will only remember the images you can paint in their mind. If your script is filled with sentences and phrases that look like they were lifted from a brochure (or worse, a website), and don’t sound like anything that any human being would say on their own volition, then it’s time to start over. 

It’s akin to putting a large canvas on a wall, then taking ten different colored cans of paint and throwing them individually into a fan. Jackson Pollack made a lot of money with this technique. Don’t ask me how or why. He just did. You, as a scriptwriter, are not Mr. Pollack. The audience has nothing to stare at - except the images you provide to them. And they can only do this in their mind. 

When you are confronted by a script that appears to be :45 instead of :30, see Copy Hack #1 above. You’re removing “fluff” words and sentences to reinforce the image that the client is trying to convey. And you’re doing it for the sake of minimalism. Not just for simplicity, but for focus.

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