Just Like The Common Cold

By Ed Thompson

The sales rep walks into my office and hands to me a production order with all the copy points necessary to create another “creative” ad. But, before she leaves, she adds, “Oh! And the client wants to record it too!” [Insert “Psycho Theme” here.] My amazement never wanes. After twenty years of listening to radio followed by twenty more working in radio, another client will badly voice another ad and the circle will be unbroken.

We all have our own horror stories. Some of mine are no different than yours. Just recently, the owner of an ad agency that I freelance for asked me to put together a campaign for a banquet hall and catering service geared toward large business meetings, keeping in mind that the client wanted to voice it. Okay. Business is business. I wrote the campaign. A friend of mine handled the production, so it was several weeks later when I heard my scripts on the air. In my entire life, I was never more embarrassed for another human being. The client had such a speech impediment that Gilda Radner’s, Baba Wawa, was the most articulate person on the planet by comparison. I called the ad agent and asked what happened. I was given what I like to call the Pontius Pilate reply, “It’s what the client wanted.” Here’s your towel. Dry your hands.

Sad to say, we will always have to deal with the client voiced ads. Just like the common cold, we’ll always get another one. But, for many cases, there are ways to minimize the damage and turn a negative into a positive.

I had an ad rep that had a Chinese restaurant for an account. He absolutely insisted that the client had to voice the spot. Trouble was, the client was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan and spoke such broken English that he was nearly impossible to understand. I fought with the rep for almost an hour before the GM was called in to tell me that I would write the ad as suggested by the AE. The spot didn’t start for a week, so I had some time to work up a solution. I was watching the news later that night and saw a press conference with President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. I was struck by how fluidly the translator made known the words of the then-Soviet leader, and that’s when the idea struck me. I wrote a script that put our client in a news conference setting. He would say what he wanted to say in Mandarin Chinese and we would have another voice provide the English translation amidst the sounds of flashbulbs, cameras, and mulling reporters. I’d even add a little feedback sound effect for that extra sense of reality. The client loved the idea. I wrote his lines in English. He translated them to Mandarin and spoke them brilliantly. Score one for Sino-American commercial relations.

Sometimes it’s best to throw away the script entirely. I had one session where the client just froze up in front of the mic. After lots of direction, the best I could get out of him was a barely lucid mumbling. It just wasn’t working. So, I decided that I would just get the client to talk. I turned on his mic and started asking him questions about something that was very important to him, his business. I asked about his business philosophy, his history, and even some of the funnier events that had occurred in the time he owned his business. He told fantastic stories about how his dad owned a furniture store in Iowa and how he and his brother grew up in the business. He told of a beautiful story of a man whose disheveled looks belied his ability to pay cash for a collection of high-end merchandise and how a business owner salesman should never pre-judge his customer. And he spoke with pride for his son serving with the United States armed forces overseas. What we ended up with was about an hour of a man whose honesty and passion for his work just beamed off the tape. We edited the best parts into three sixty-second spots, and a star was born. All we had to do was remove the constraints of a script, let the client be the client, and the customers responded.

Then sometimes you have to play a little game of monkey-see-monkey-do. The other day I had a nationally known college football player in the studio. (I won’t use his name because I don’t want to spoil any future endorsement deals the young man might come by when he turns pro.) Sadly, the session wasn’t going as well as hoped. Even though he had had some acting in high school, he just wasn’t “hitting his mark.” I tried to direct him as best I could, but he was still missing the target enough that it could have been an embarrassment for him. So, I finally said, “Dude! Just copy me.” I’d feed him the line and he’d feed it back, with almost the same inflection and sound. After a little practice, it worked. We had enough good lines recorded to put together a very coherent, convincing ad.

As much as I would like to see the client-voiced ads just disappear from memory, I am resigned to the fact that they are with us to stay. As long as some AEs think their clients are the next Lee Iococca, David Orek, or Dave Thomas, we will have to try to make the silk purse from the sow’s ear. But, as long as we do the best we can to make the best spot possible with the material we’re given, we will never have to worry about having to dry our hands.

An aside: advertising lost a great one in December of last year. Don Tennant, of the Leo Burnett ad agency died at the age of 79. Don created some of the most enduring and effective ad ideas ever. Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro man, and the Pillsbury Doughboy were the children of his creative genius. And though this is a magazine dedicated to radio production, one must still pay homage to those who show us how it’s done, no matter what medium is used.

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