by John Pellegrini
Many times, over the course of our years, we have heard the more pompous and sanctimonious among us say, “Your problem is, you haven’t faced reality yet.” Or, “You need a good dose of reality.” Or, “It’s time to face REALITY.” I, myself, have uttered these ridiculous phrases, as if this is somehow going to “cure” another’s set of issues. The truth is, we tend to forget the key question that should always be asked of those who say this (myself included): “Exactly whose reality are you referring to?”
What is reality? That depends on whom you are asking. My reality is totally different from yours, and yours is totally different from anyone else you know. Oh, sure, we have common experiences because we all live in the same country and on the same planet. But my reality of trying to keep my head above water here in Chicago radio is totally different from someone just starting out in radio, in Bolivar, Missouri. Which is totally different from someone who went from the minors, up to the majors, and is now headed back down into the minors again. Which is different, still, from someone who started in the majors, and is still there. We all share the common experience of being in radio, but none of us have the same reality of the business.
The point is, reality, just like the truth, is totally subjective to the set of values of the individual’s perception, as well as preconceived ideas. Sure, there are certain standards that we hold to be correct, but absolutes in human behavior and beliefs are non-existent, otherwise, why would we need lawyers? For example, you may believe that your computer is the greatest invention of the 20th Century and will lead us to total enlightenment, whereas I believe that the computer is a nifty little tool that I don’t necessarily need for anything. Both realities are correct, depending on the individual’s thought processes.
So how does reality fit itself into my life? For a while, I thought I should define my life’s ambition as being a writer. But, that’s not necessarily what I do. Sure, I write, but writing is just a method I employ for my purpose. Writing itself does not accomplish anything; it is what you determine that writing to mean, or represent, that actually sets the course of action. Plus, not everything I do is written down, or even planned. Experimentation happens a lot in the mind of creative people, and memory serves more often as the springboard of ideas, than a blank piece of paper.
So what do I do, how do I define my purpose in life? After careful con-sideration of about five minutes, I realized that I create alternative realities. Think about that for a second. What does anyone who writes anything actually do? They create an alternative reality. This alternative reality can be based on real events, or it can be fiction. But whenever you create a promo, commercial, or whatever, you are creating an alternative reality. If you are writing a parody or a comedy bit, you are creating an alternative reality. Any time you use your imagination, you are creating an alternative reality.
An Alternative Reality occurs every time you think of a new possibility, even if the possibility is totally grounded in the now and existing world. For example, motivational books are Alternative Realities based on current reality and the writer’s vision for the potential of the situation. Even journalists engage in the creation of Alternative Realities when they surmise the outcome of any current event before the actual outcome occurs. This is a form of fiction writing, or creating Alternative Realities. Fiction, of course, is the easiest form of Alternative Realities to identify, because everything is made up.
Back in 1996, I began writing a novel, which I’m now exploring getting published. It has nothing to do with radio whatsoever (I may be the only radio person to ever deliberately not write about radio for my first novel). Whether it gets published or not, who can tell. But, I found the whole experience of writing it to be highly satisfying. Here I was, creating people, situations, histories, futures, and an entirely different world out of nothing. Talk about playing God without actually playing God! An entire little world of people that I created that lived or died depending on what I decided to do with it. This is what we, as creatives, do: we create Alternative Realities.
Your imagination can create any alternative reality you wish. Inter-pretation of those alternative realities can help create even more alternative realities. The creative process is always best suited to large frameworks of possibilities. However, ideas must have some sort of set limitations, in order for things to make sense. No matter how large the framework, there must be a framework in place so that all your ideas can enhance the reality you create.
For example, if I were going to do a commercial for a fine dining restaurant, why would we have a reality set in the “Old West?” This does not make any sense. And, the amount of time necessary to explain why you’re setting a commercial for a fine dining restaurant in the “Old West” is time taken away from promoting the fine dining restaurant.
The alternative reality must be grounded in some kind of believable reality for it to work. A set of rules of behavior must be observed. If you have time to establish your new set of rules within the story you tell, then you can change the rules as needed. However, a 60-second commercial seldom lends itself to this kind of creative freedom. Therefore, if you stick with the rules and standards that society has already put in place, you have more time to devote to making your reality a true promotional device for the subject of your commercial. That’s why you don’t set a commercial for a fine dining restaurant in the “Old West.” It takes too long to explain the reason behind the setting, and that’s time taken away from the purpose of the spot. Sure this is an easy one to give as an example, yet, not long ago, I found myself reviewing just such a piece of copy from an agency that should have known better.
You might say this method could be achieved by asking a simple question of every commercial or promo you create, which is, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” If you find yourself asking this question as a result of a promo or commercial you have created, then you’ve lost the purpose of the commercial or promo.
We have all seen TV commercials that inspire us to ask this very question. Most famous of recent memory is the GM Goodwrench spot where Shakes-pearean actors ponder the validity of a lifetime guarantee. What the hell does that have to do with fixing cars? Or, two guys acting stupid in a clothing store that’s supposed to be some kind of a TV sitcom parody, but it’s really a commercial for Mercury Mini-vans. What the hell does that have to do with selling cars? Believe me, if we’re asking those questions, so are all the consumers! I’ve even heard the Budweiser Lizards asking the question out loud, “What does that have to do with selling beer?” If the creatives of the agency are asking that question, then shouldn’t anyone be concerned?
Sometimes we get the mistaken belief that being wacky is funny, which, in turn, is creative. More often than not, we are not being funny. We are being stupid. Last time I checked, stupidity isn’t funny or creative. Stupidity is just stupid. Nobody ever bought anything because they liked associating with stupidity. Nobody ever bought anything because they admire stupidity. The creative process does not include stupidity as a landmark or goal worth shooting for. The creative process is supposed to take us beyond stupidity and into something better. That’s what makes us different from the other animals on the planet.
Leading yourself into a creative process in order to promote something must involve a definite set of guidelines to work from. The reason you’re writing this promo or commercial is to promote THIS subject. And nothing else. Therefore, all the creative elements that are brought into the project must relate back to the promotion of the subject matter. So what should you do for your creative process?
What does radio do better than any other medium? What is radio’s primary definition? What was the first broadcast in radio? The story. Radio tells stories. Radio is the medium of the storyteller. Radio is the printed story come to life. Before the written word, there was the storyteller. Radio is the oldest of all forms of communication. It is the human voice, connected to your imagination.
Listen to the reporters on NPR and PRI. What do they do when they file their reports? They tell stories. They use sound effects recorded from the environment that the story is set, and they use actualities from the people who they interview, but when the finished news report comes out, it’s a story. The best commercial and promos, the ones you remember the easiest, and therefore the most, are stories. The creation of an alternative reality is a story. Plus, now that you know you’re telling a story with your promo or commercial, you will have a much easier time deciding when you’re being needlessly stupid with a concept, versus when you’re being creative and enhancing your story.
Storytelling is the finest form of creative production there is, because everything you do from start to finish has one purpose, and that’s to make a great story about your subject. Now, of course, it doesn’t have to be a Pollyannaish pie-in-the-sky rendering of sugar-coated self-congratulation. A little decorum and common sense will dictate that you must have a compelling purpose behind your method. A great story is one that’s interesting, and believable. It has a purpose, conflict, and resolution. And, most important, it should appeal to people on an emotional level. We’ve discussed these facts before, but it doesn’t hurt to bring them up again: People buy on emotion, not price. People want to connect emotionally with something, before they bicker about how much it’s going to cost them. So, as creators of the story, creators of the alternative reality, it is up to us to make the emotional connection happen, so that price is not an issue for the acquisition. Even if you’re trying to get more listeners for your station, people still have to pay some sort of price in order to listen. Make the emotional appeal strong enough, and people will go out of their way to listen to your station, no matter how hard it is to get your signal. By the way, this practice is what separates the multimillion-dollar agency creatives from the people trying to make headway in Bolivar, Missouri. Not that there’s anything wrong with Bolivar, Missouri, by the way, if you happen to like it there. But if you’ve ever found yourself asking, “why am I stuck here, and not out where I could be making more money?” the answer could lie in your approach to the creative process as detailed above. (By the way, you could even be asking this question in New York #@%*ing City!)
Now, before you get the idea that we should call ourselves “Storytellers,” let me remind you that not all storytellers create their own stories. Sure, radio is the storyteller’s medium, but someone needs to create the stories that are to be told. Too often, we hail the performer, and ignore the creator of the performance. Hollywood is a classic example of this problem. How many actors write their own movies or TV shows? The Oscars always concentrate primarily on the acting, instead of the writing. But if writing wasn’t important, we wouldn’t have box office failures. We wouldn’t have B and Z grade movies. We wouldn’t have movies released directly to video. We wouldn’t have movie studios so desperate for plots that they’re recycling every single TV sitcom that was ever done. (I’m still waiting for a movie version of “My Mother The Car” or “Captain Nice” – someone will be stupid enough to think these two TV disasters will be worth remaking into movies.)
The story is the key. The story is what makes people connect with anything you wish to promote. Create alternative realities, and tell their stories. History is full of alternative realities; it all depends on which side won the battle as to how reality is portrayed in the history books. Had the Tudors lost the War of the Roses, Richard III might have been considered one of England’s greatest kings instead of one of its most villainous kings. All you need is an alternative reality to make it happen. Any history professor worth their weight will tell you that historical text is full of subjectiveness and prejudices depending upon the whims of those who wrote it, or paid for it to be written.
For example, historical records of Egypt from the time of the Pharaohs have very little information on the Exodus and no mention of Moses at all—not even as a brother of Pharaoh, as the Bible tells. Perhaps the Egyptians were embarrassed by the event. Perhaps it wasn’t significant to them. Perhaps it didn’t really happen the way it is portrayed in the Bible. We’ll never have full confirmation from the Egyptian side of the story. There are many examples of these factual glitches throughout all of history, not just from Biblical times, but right into this Century. Japan’s take on World War II and their role in it is far different from the one the rest of the world has. America and the U.K. have made much objection over this fact. It all depends on who’s in charge of the writing as to how reality is recorded and how the story of history is played out. And historical stories are definitely modified to suit present times.
Okay, I digressed there. Back to the benefits of story telling when used in creating commercials and promos for radio. Story telling is also the easiest way to rid yourself of common clichés in your commercials. Because every story is different, and every sponsor has a different story. Even competitors in the same business have a different story behind them. Find out what those stories are, and you’ve made a commercial void of cliché and filled with emotional reasons to connect with the business. Granted, not every sponsor you have is going to want to tell his or her story. That’s okay; let them continue to use the same old clichés. Work with the ones that will agree to this, and the naysayers will fall in line eventually (or go out of business). It never fails to amaze me how much copycatting occurs in advertising. Store XYZ refuses to tell stories in their spots, until the competition does it, then they decide they have to do it, too. Well, so what? If they’re doing the right thing, and using stories, they’ll be able to differentiate enough that you won’t have to worry about it.
It’s a never-ending cycle to convince clients that the same old crap won’t work any more. People are entrenched in the “commercial” mindset. Copy that tells stories instead of listing prices doesn’t “sound like a commercial,” so therefore it cannot work. This unfortunate state of mind isn’t due to any intellectual reasoning. It’s due to the fact that every single commercial you’ve heard throughout most of your life has been nothing but boring prices and hopelessly meaningless clichés. I’ve had numerous clients complain to me about how bad advertising sounds, and then insist on using every bad advertising idea in their own spots. Why? It just doesn’t sound like advertising without those bad ideas to them.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To keep your commercials interesting so that the audience remembers them, you need to sound totally different than everyone else. You need to stand out from the crowd, because when it comes to spots that sound alike, the only ones anyone remembers are the ones that people hear the most often. That’s the Pavlovian Advertising Concept. Repeat it so often that the subject can’t think of anything else. This concept only works if you have millions of dollars to spend and you can afford to have your spot running continuously, everywhere. However, if you’re a small business, who can only afford to advertise a little, you aren’t going to do squat by repeating what everyone else is doing; you’re just going to make the few who do recognize your spot think that you’re part of the competition.
Consider that point for a second! Tell this to your worst clients. If they’re running spots that sound like their competitor’s spots, and if they’re not running as often as their competitors, there’s a good chance that the audience is mistaking their spots for the competition. How do we know this? Frequency. What do your station’s own salespeople preach? Frequency. Whoever runs the most spots wins, especially if they all sound alike. The rest end up eating dust. That’s why your cliché clients need to re-think their advertising strategies. They’re losing to their competition because their spots sound just like the competitors who spend more money than they do.
How’s that for a healthy dose of reality?
P.S. Sorry if it seemed like I was singling out Bolivar, Missouri. I’ve never been there; I just like the name. Besides, how often does Bolivar get mentioned in international publications anyhow?