Driving my daughter to school the other day she became perplexed by a commercial on the radio, specifically the hurried voice over at the end of it. You know what I’m talking about. The legal copy advertisers are obligated to run warning consumers about certain claims, mitigating the ancient notion of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Here, the voice over is noticeably sped up to fit all the information into as small a space as possible. Like you, I’ve become jaded by this chip monk-sounding gibberish. Sometimes I don’t even hear it.
Naturally, my children are more curious. And I don’t blame them for laughing. The sped-up VO is patently ridiculous, helping neither the advertiser nor the consumer. It’s an industry practice started some time ago, likely mandated by a government consumer watchdog. For all I know Ralph Nader is to blame.
“I don’t get it,” my daughter said. “Those men at the end of the commercial are forced into telling us the commercial isn’t telling the truth?”
I nod. “Something like that.”
“And that’s what forced the people who made the commercial to make the guy talk so fast in the first place. So nobody could understand him?”
“Yes… Sort of.”
“But that’s crazy, Dad!”
“Try reading the microscopic type they use in print ads. It’s even worse.”
My daughter crinkled her nose, as if smelling something disagreeable. “Wouldn’t it be better if nobody lied in the first place?”
“Of course,” I stammered. “But advertising is different.” Immediately, I hated my answer. But I had nothing better. Thankfully, music returned to the radio. I turned it up and we drove away from the question.
I have three little girls, aged 8, 9 and 12. I have a wife whose age I will spare you (her). That means I’m driving a lot, to riding lessons, to sleepovers, to camp. This also means I’m listening to lot of silly pop music on the car radio. Though I think little of today’s popular music I don’t mind listening to it…sort of. I consider it a necessary evil in terms of staying current, which I feel is absolutely necessary for any creative person, especially one who makes a living in Adland. A liberal arts education never stops. Relevancy is a defining feature of any good copywriter. How in hell can one write ad copy for radio, for example, without knowing what is being played on it? Like it or not, one needs to consume popular media in order to contribute to it. This goes without saying, though I wonder how many creative ad people pay attention to what the majority of consumers are listening to. Precious few I’d wager.
Speaking of the radio, the other day, while I was driving my girls to the barn I had on one of their favorite radio stations, either 101.9, MIX FM or 103.5, KISS FM. They go back and forth so I forget which one. Either way, these are loud and popular stations, featuring top 40 music and screaming DJ’s, with (I think) identical formats all over the country.
After an interminable set of music from Brittany, Rihanna and Katy Perry came the interminable flight of commercials. As you would expect, we heard from a raft of summer advertisers such as Six Flags amusement park and various big box retailers hawking back-to-school specials. In addition (and this is what I want to talk about), there was a commercial from Disney hailing child auditions for some new show in the fall. “Your kid can be on TV, alongside celebrities like Selena Gomez!” Fine. I get it. With young girls being primary listeners a casting call promotion only makes sense. But then this, a pre-recorded station promotion: “Hi ya’ll. This is Kesha. It’s summertime and that means it’s HOT. You know what else is hot? My ASS!”
I nearly spit my Starbucks. In the parlance of a 12-year old girl: OMG! How can a radio station that thrives on girly content for girly girls run something like that? Don’t the program managers have a say in what constitutes appropriate programming, or do they even care? Especially considering the bawdy promotion came on the heels of an advert for Disney? Not too long ago, when I worked at Leo Burnett, we had Disney as a client. Disney had strict rules for what their messages would look and sound like. Needless to say, the word “ass” was not something we put into their ad copy.
Times change, I’m well aware of that. Listen closely to most of the music and it’s all partying and booty calls. Katy Perry’s hit, Last Friday Night is about one long blackout. But in her defense, she is an (gulp) artist. Same as Kesha. When I was a kid, heavy metal dominated my favorite radio stations and bands like Van Halen sang about the same damn things. Hence the term, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
Yet, then as now, Advertisers typically hold to a higher standard. And, then as now, I think that’s mostly a good thing. Call me old-fashioned but does Kesha’s self-described “HOT ASS” belong in a commercial block with Disney, on a radio station for little girls and their moms? I don’t care what year it is I don’t want my 8-year old daughter thinking about hot asses, hers or anyone else’s. Do you?
October 22, 2008
I loathe radio advertising. As a teenager, vainly reluctant to turn the dial from my favorite station (The Loop), instead enduring the echoing screams from SMOKING U.S. DIRTY DRAGSTRIP. SMOKING! SMOKING! SMOKING! As a man, navigating between sports and talk, desperately trying to avoid the hard-up pitches for sexual enhancement.
Radio is like ditch weed. It makes you wince and gives you a headache. It’s cheap.
I know this sounds like sacrilege, coming from a copywriter. Believe me, I’ve heard the defenses. Radio is theater of the mind. It’s voices only we control. Pure prose. Copywriters are supposed to love the medium because it’s our words and little else. No art direction. No stage direction. No client interaction. But I don’t care; I hate it.
Start with the volume. Every spot seems to shout its message from the top of a radio tower. LOW INTEREST MORTGAGES! INTENSE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE! REAL MEN OF GENIUS! Yes, even the arguably brilliant Bud Light campaign resorts to loudness. It has to. It’s radio.
And the clichés. Knock. Knock. “Who’s there?” I know -a dumb ass character in a radio commercial. You’d think every conversation in the world took place on one’s doorstep. Why? Because it sets the stage damn fast: two people, with one having to state his or her cause. Plus doorbells and knocking are easy to create and recognize. And what about all the shrinks? “Tell me about your dreams,” starts the spot. The remaining character (patient) is then given a soapbox to rant and rave, a necessary evil when exposition is critical.
While TV commercials are guilty as well, nowhere are the STUPID HUSBAND and NAGGING WIFE more apparent than on radio. We know these people from their voices alone. The man is a clueless dope. The woman is a whiny bitch. Sometimes they make up and then we get my favorite cliché: using words no one ever uses anymore. When was the last time you called your wife “honey?” Certainly not in a conversation about reliable pain relief.
Writing radio has its charms. The author goes it alone, which has a certain poetic machismo. But it’s not worth the result, which is almost always terrible. I’ve written plenty of radio campaigns. So far I have liked only one of them: a series for Art.com featuring Peter Graves in his iconic “Biography” character. It was cute. The rest all sucked.
Radio doesn’t have a foothold anywhere in popular culture. No one talks about radio commercials around the water cooler. Not even ad people. Radio doesn’t have a forum like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.
Speaking of accolades, without exception, radio is the category NOBODY wants to judge at awards shows. Talk about purgatory. You’re in a room, staring at the walls, and expected to listen. And listen, and listen and listen. By the 15th commercial I’m ready to shove chopsticks in my ears. Unlike pizza (even when it’s bad it’s good), radio is the whine of a mosquito.
Look, I’ve chuckled at the occasional spot. I just don’t think those rare exceptions are worth the vast, remaining blitzkrieg. Do you?