by Andy Capp
"Hey there, Mr. Farmer!" "Uh, hi." "Say, wouldn't you like more bushels per acre on those soybeans?" "Duh." "Then why not attempt a radical new concept in hydro-infused, microencapsulated enzymes which promote the development of embryonic...." "Huh?" We interrupt this episode of "A Man and His Radio" for a few words about, words:
"Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make clearer." Joseph Joubert (1754-1824)
Words, do we care about them any more? Despite all the grumbling about overused, clique words, we keep using them ("Hey Mr. Farmer!"). We harp about keeping the message simple, then still try to cram thirteen lines of techno-babble into an ad (..."Hydro-infused, microencapsulated enzymes..."). We're upset when a client whines that an ad wasn't effective, yet we let them force us into adding both of their phone numbers, twice. It seems that everybody is complaining about words, but nobody wants to take the time or space to make them better.
I blame Madonna. Madonna, Michael Jackson, MTV, the whole advent of music videos. The hype, the flash of it all. "Have you heard that new song?" became "Did you see that new video?!!" The lyrics didn't matter. The song just needed some off the wall music posts to edit the video to. In that transition of musicians becoming "Multimedia Artists," radio tried to keep up. It got louder, zip pangier. Packaging became more important than the words. Sadly, as many of the early Music Television ex-stars found out, without content, boredom eventually sets in and people quit watching or listening. There's problem number one.
I blame clients. Clients, Salespeople, Radio Management and Producers, anyone involved in this business of getting commercials on the air. The client is spending the money to advertise and feels that they should be in charge whether they understand radio advertising or not. The salesperson, focused on getting the sale by management, feels that the client should have whatever he wants in an ad, even if it means ignoring important items to include useless information that clutters that ad and makes it less effective. The producer, tired of fighting the issue, slaps an ad together, sometimes using lines verbatim from the production order, voicing it all with the interpretation and feeling of a blue light special announcer at K-Mart. Somehow, wonder of wonders, the ad doesn't work. The client is mad and cancels. So much for a long-term business relationship. There's problem number two.
If the last few paragraphs have made you angry, good! I get mad when I read my faults, too. In fact, reading the last few paragraphs has made me mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more...and neither should you.
Let's quit hiding behind the smoke and mirrors of sound effects and Harmonizers. Let's stop writing formula spots and start finding the words that will communicate the message. I'm not talking about producing nothing but voice only commercials. I'm talking about inserting some meat and potatoes under all the gravy!
Ask sales for the essentials. Also ask for their help so that too much information doesn't bog down a commercial. If it takes two or three spots to tell all the stories a client has, so be it. Though, by taking a little time to consider what's really important, often one good spot will tell the client's story. Despite what you may have heard, Production and Sales are on the same team, and any intelligent salesperson will understand that a little extra time taken to make an ad better will mean better response for the client and, perhaps, more revenue in the salesperson's pocket in the future. Ask them to help you find the words the client really needs.
Listen to the station's audience. Actually spend time with them. How do they say things? What words do they use? What's their version of "plain English?" This is how they communicate. This is how you should talk to them in an ad.
Find different, compelling words to get the message across. In his column last month, John Pellegrini wrote about the importance of reading really good writers and incorporating the story-telling techniques learned into your own work, and he's right. It's also important to read the magazines your listeners read, the best sellers (good or bad) that they're absorbing and (sorry, John) the TV shows they're watching...not to copy, but to find the vocabulary of your audience, to pick up phrases and motivations that your listeners have and make them part of how you touch them.
If you're using drops from movies, TV, whatever, make sure that they have a reason to be there, that they are part of the script. John Frost at KROQ in L.A. is a master of this. His productions are crammed with effects and drops, but they all have a point. They all contribute to the message. Some producers seem to think that if they use any drop from a Jim Carrey movie, they're cutting edge and creative. But if it has nothing to do with the message, it's clutter and, frankly, can sound downright dumb (and dumber)!
Finally, once the words are on paper, it's time to say them in the studio. Note I wrote, "say them," not "read them." We all get a good laugh/groan out of some clients who insist on voicing their own ads, but even trained announcers can develop a cadence in their voice that screams, "I'm reading this!" I found it interesting that when I heard Dick Orkin speak, he called his voice-over talent "Voice Actors." The power of good words is complete when someone says them with real meaning and feeling. I like to approach a script as if I'm having a conversation with someone because, when it's all said and done, I am.
Don't take this personally, but odds are that Mr. Farmer or Mrs. Vice President of Computing or whoever is listening to your station isn't listening for the next stop set of spots. Don't invite them to spin the dial when it happens, SAY SOMETHING!!!