Driving home from work I like to roll old school, engaging in the dad-like behavior (all too rare for me) of listening to news and sports on the radio. Can you believe it? AM radio! That means a ton of commercials, which I also listen too. Most of them, by any creative definition, are terrible. Still, I listen. There’s pleasure in the pain –sort of like when the dentist cleans your teeth. Allow me to poke fun at a few the spots I’ve heard recently. Low hanging fruit I know. But one can’t always hang out in the deep end of the pool.
Toyota is a huge brand. Yet this particular campaign sounds like fodder from the local dealership. (Likely what I’m hearing is part of a regional campaign, created by a smaller, specialty shop.) Anyway, the campaign is titled “True Story.” In the various commercials a chipper announcer pimps some aspect of a given vehicle: miles per gallon, low price, etc. He or she bookends her spiel with the odd exclamation: “True Story!” Though I understand the phrase it never quite fits in the creative. Frankly, it comes out of nowhere. Worse, it implies the possibility that we are being lied to. Getting a great deal on a Toyota should not have to be qualified. The brand is known for value. Blurting “True Story!” is not only clunky it’s also off brand.
Close your eyes and it’s just like the radio. Bad. True story!
I’ve been hearing this spot for a learning center in the Bay area, whose name I can’t recall. What I do remember is the spot’s urgent claim (delivered in the manner of a serious newscaster) that “research has proven kids forget up to 50% of what they’ve learned in school during summer vacation!” Research? All I need to do is look at the letters my girls are sending me from camp. By the fifth letter they are not even spelling the word “the” correctly. They may be scaring a few moms with this “urgent report” but not me. Summer is stupid time for kids. That’s why it’s so much fun.
And then there’s Shane Co Jewelers and their ubiquitous slogan: “You’ve got a friend in the diamond business.” These radio ads, featuring the curmudgeonly voice of CEO, Tom Shane are so love-hated they (he) have been mocked on South Park. True Story! (That, my friends, is a comedy 360.)
According to Wikipedia, “The company states the radio advertisements are the longest-running continuous campaign in the history of the medium of radio.” I find that hard to believe. Regardless, I gleefully look forward to hearing Uncle Tom tell me about his trips to Thailand or wherever he “handpicks only the best diamonds with the finest sparkle.” What’s especially remarkable is how timely Shane Co is with their messaging. In June, for example, there was a specific spot for Father’s day and Graduation day and wedding engagements. Tom Shane has a diamond (and a pitch) for every month of the year. What Tom likely never said was that because of the severity of the holiday season in 2009 the company had to file for bankruptcy. On the other hand maybe he did. “We’re bankrupt so now is the perfect time to choose a sparkly new diamond!”
Ah, drive time. Even in the most wired town on the planet we can still delight in good, old-fashioned crap… on the radio!
This past weekend my wife and I went hiking near Point Reyes National seashore, one of many spectacular outings mere miles from our new home in Mill Valley. Anyway, we came across a small beach on Tomales Bay, which was heavily populated by weekend revelers. Families were camped in circles, barbecuing, drinking and listening to the radio.
Listening to the radio. Wow, I thought to myself. There’s a blast from the past…
For a relatively brief period of time, say from 1950 to 1985, before the Sony Walkman ushered in portable and private listening experiences, every teen-ager in America owned a radio. In later years, many of these contraptions were jacked up multi-platform music machines also known as “boom boxes.”
In the summer one couldn’t go anywhere, really, without hearing them. If we were going to “the lake to party” it was always someone’s job to bring the “tunes.” Not that we needed too. Just about every car had music blasting from it. The sounds of summer were a cacophony of Top 40, Disco and Heavy Metal; occasionally a Cub’s game as well but it wasn’t long before Judas Priest would blow the old listener out of his green and white lawn chair.
For rockers in Chicago, the station to listen to was WLUP, otherwise known as “the Loop.” Steve Dahl, the shock jock creator of Chicago’s infamous Disco Demolition was hugely popular.
Between offensive patter, Dahl played Van Halen, AC/DC, Rush, Aerosmith and pink Floyd. Funny how most of these bands still record and tour. Legacy acts now, back then they were Gods.
Going back even further, I remember sleeping over at my best friend’s house, staying up super late, listening to weekend countdowns on WLS Music Radio. We lived for the call-in contests, where if you were such and such numbered caller you’d win a lame tee shirt. The prize wasn’t really the point, however. It was about hearing your self on the radio. If you were lucky they’d let you choose and dedicate the next song. The one time I got through I believe I chose Slow Ride by Foghat.
“Are you ready to take a Slowwww Ride!”
Nostalgia aside, I’ve gone on record stating my disdain for radio as an advertising medium. I’m not changing my tune. Unlike other mass media, for some reason the intrusion of commercials just bothers me more on the radio than anywhere else. Always has. Always will. Only Internet spam reaches similar irritation levels. Thank God for my friend, Skip Intro. Granted, 98% of ads on the radio are awful but even if they weren’t I’d still feel the same way.
A copywriter by trade, I know I’m supposed to relish writing radio commercials. I don’t. Fortunately, briefs for radio ads are as rare as California Condors.
I guess one could say I have a love/hate thing with radio. Like you, I’m delighted NOT to be violated by other people’s music. The Walkman and then MP3 players made the world a lot quieter, at least on the outside. I don’t miss beaches and parks being blasted to bits by Van Halen. Alright, maybe a little…
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?