by Mark Margulies
Radio is always a challenge. Maybe that's why so many of us love it as we do. But the challenge is sometimes frustrating because many times, as we've discussed in this column and throughout this magazine on many occasions, we get caught between what we know is best for the client and what the client wants.
We know that developing and producing the creative is our job, and that means sometimes changing the client's mind about what is right for their store or product or taking a step away from their comfort zone to something that's truly different. Television has already begun on that road and we see it throughout the advertising industry today. Trends are changing and morphing. That's because demographics are shifting and agencies are attempting to ride the crest of that shift to stay on the cutting edge. Thus, a new genre of ads has emerged, one I like to call the "anti-commercial."
Watch your Nike ads featuring Jerry Stiller as the Vince Lombardi character. Watch some McDonald's ads. Perfume and cologne ads have always been edgy. Now, they too reflect this philosophy. You'll see the commercial will come on and express a certain theme. Or it will be a surrealistic view of the world. Maybe it's some rapid cuts of black and white images. It may just be a blank screen followed by message boards flashing various words. But an "anti-commercial" is different from anything else on the air because it contains little to no information about the product, nothing about the benefits or conveniences. In fact, it contains none of the traditional information you associate with an advertisement of its kind. Most times, it hardly even mentions the name of the advertiser. Sure, you may see the Nike swoosh at the end, a well-placed billboard to quick cut to a reminder of who the client is. Maybe it's a McDonalds logo at the end of the spot, conspicuously placed. But you may go the entire commercial without ever seeing a hamburger, a sneaker, or the client's product. All image, all style, all attitude. Lots of fast images and quick cuts. This is MTV generation production, and it constitutes a growing number of ads in today's market.
So here comes the challenging part. Compare what's happening on the landscape of the industry to the business as usual attitude that we see in many stations, even our own. Account Executives still come back loaded down with information. They hand you menus for restaurants and brochures for doctors and travel agents. They still bring in the newspaper ads for a furniture store, even critics' reviews or articles written to describe their client. They have multiple inventory lists, telling you everything a client has in their store, or every possible service that client has to offer.
Now, in direct contrast to what seems to appeal to a growing segment of the market, radio continues to operate as it did ten and fifteen years ago with a philosophy that says, "If the client wants it in the ad, put it in the ad." "Pack the information in. Our cume is strong enough that the listeners will respond." And so here we are, forced to make sure we mention the name, mention the phone number and the address, mention all the specials and the products, mention what's happening other nights of the week, or mention another business that may be next door or co-owned. Oh, and if there's room, mention that they're number one in this or that.
So the question is, when will we be allowed by the clients and the stations to catch up? When will we take control of the client and explain to them that, though this is a radical departure from what they've done, it appeals to the market they're trying to reach and it will work if it's done right and backed by the proper flight. When will that occur at the local level, five years from now...? Ten? By that time will radio have lost even more market share to the Internet, to cable, to print and to new and emerging electronic sources?
Radio, it seems, for all its prowess and all its advantages of being an immediacy medium, seems to lag at the back of the bus when it comes to changing advertising trends. Whereas once people listened to the radio to HEAR THE TRENDS, we seem to have abdicated that role.
Now I'm not suggesting we all run out, ingest an incredible amount of mind altering chemicals so we can experience the surrealistic inspiration necessary to create these ads and start mass producing them for everyone from the local florist shop to the funeral home. But we must as an industry understand why they exist and what they're accomplishing. If people weren't responding, they would just fade away. They're not. And now, a whole new generation of listeners unlike any generation before it is becoming aware in the marketplace. They have disposable income. They are consumers. And, as such, they will be catered to by advertisers. We have seen the beginning of how that appeal is going to be handled. If we are to be trendsetters in a medium known for being on the cutting edge, we must respond in kind.
That means categories like nightclubs and clothing stores (or boutiques) should be willing to take a chance. That means clients like 800 numbers and snowboards, in-line skates, or skateboard shops should be too, if they aren't already involved in that type of spot. That means, it's time to put the cluttered spot to rest. Packing commercials with tons of information has never appealed to the listener. In fact, Rosser Reeves, in his reasoning for developing the Unique Selling Proposition, spoke of wasteful commercials that were too wordy, too confusing, and too trite that destroyed the audience good will. His departure from that early fifties brand of TV spot was to develop a single theme, hold the audience by driving home a single point time and time again and making the benefits simple to understand. Thus, in a way, he is the grandfather of the "anti-commercial" because the authors of this genre have also rejected the norm as being too wordy, boring and destroying audience good will. Their solution, while different from Reeves' in technique, is similar in approach, as they simplify by eliminating almost all mention of product, banking on style and energy to attract the viewer to the advertiser and their product.
Of course, we're in radio and, as I explain to people about U.S.P., radio handles U.S.P. slightly differently because it was developed for a different medium with different problems. But in this case we, too, can adapt some of the "anti-commercial" techniques and mind set and put it to use.
How? Simplify. Slim down. Eliminate. Create compelling little thirty and sixty second stories, vignettes or ideas that influence the listener at an emotional level. Use the medium to develop an edge for your client, to separate them out by making them look and sound different. Not everyone will go for it. But the ones who do go for it want to reach that kind of audience in a unique and revolutionary kind of way. With computers, digitizing and special effects, radio commercials can become anything we dream of. Dare that dream. Erase the clutter and begin to tap into that edge that's permeating the industry at all levels.
Radio is a cutting edge industry. Don't dull that edge so that we are no longer a viable tool.
Finally, I'd just like to slip a personal note of thanks to all those of you who were kind enough to stop by and say "hi" or to sit in on my talk at the R.A.B. Conference in Atlanta Saturday, February 8th. It was a pleasure to meet with all of you and get the chance to share ideas, plus meet some of the faces behind the voices. Again, thanks for stopping by.