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Radio Ads and Theater of the Mind

It may be old-school, but radio remains the most powerful medium for communicating with your audience.


Do you happen to know the phone number to call to place a classified ad in the Dallas Times Herald? If you lived here in the late 1970s and early ’80s, chances are 748-1414 just popped into your mind. Considering that you likely don’t know the number for your current physician, why should you remember that of a newspaper that ceased publication in 1991? Because you learned it on the radio. 

Dallas Times Herald Classifieds Radio Jingle

Since I’m guilty of having written that Times Herald jingle in 1977 on behalf of Stan Richards and Jim Hradecky of The Richards Group, Dallas, I have mixed emotions about citing it here. This is less a matter of modesty (ask anyone who knows me) than of the fact that I’ve always found it a vaguely embarrassing achievement, along the lines of having been the fastest runner at fat camp. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of less annoying things that I’m prouder to have written; but face it, 748-1414’s almost nuclear half-life bespeaks its effectiveness. 

That campaign, along with other locally created classics like Tom Bodett’s promise to “leave a light on” for us at Motel 6 (written by David Fowler, also of The Richards Group) and hundreds of surreally charming spots that the late, great Bob Stanford wrote and performed exhorting us to “Thank Heaven For 7-11,” have claimed squatter’s rights among the wrinkles in our brains. But it wouldn’t have happened in any other medium.

In terms of communicating with your audience, radio is the single most powerful medium for advertising there is. It’s also relatively inexpensive to produce and purchase. According to Dallas media buyer Joan Tibbetts Hudson, the cost per thousand listeners for a prime-time radio spot is less than half the cost of a prime-time television spot. While every medium has its own strengths, of course, radio has more of them and they are stronger. There are three reasons for this: radio is immediate, it’s portable, and, most important, it’s involving. 

It’s immediate because you can reach people while they’re near a phone or at a computer, either at home or at work. And you get them in their cars. When your message is sufficiently powerful and timely, you can even motivate them to turn their cars in some desired direction. One of highest compliments I ever received was from the manager of a restaurant franchise who told me that when his parking lot filled up, he knew that his radio spot had just run. Deciding where to eat is, literally, a visceral decision, and radio, by being completely in the now, can elicit this kind of instantaneous and emotional response.

It’s portable, literally, because we often listen to it in cars, but even more because of the singular way we retain the advertising that we hear on the radio. When the message is right, the listener carries it around forever. This, of course, can be maddeningly true of jingles (a subject for an entire future column), but one quick thought about playing a musical commercial on radio is that radio is a fundamental context for music. While, of course, jingles run on TV and can be tremendously effective, they’re even more effective on radio because of that third attribute:

It’s involving. More than any other medium, radio, when it’s done well, gets the listener to participate. Amazing as it seems, there was a time—before TV and way before the Internet—when radio was the economy’s most important selling tool. Radio shows, adjusted for the context of their era, were pretty much like TV shows have been for the last 50 years, but the medium required the audience to participate by using its imagination. For advertisers, when the message and the presentation deliver, this transaction still holds. People still get involved, even if they’re only hearing a commercial. Consider this: here’s a medium that can get your prospects to immerse themselves in the world of your advertising. When that happens, you’re more than halfway to a sale. 

One reason listeners get involved with radio advertising is a technique called Theater of the Mind. The listener imagines and, by imagining, participates. 

Some terrific current examples of this technique can be heard in spots for from TM Advertising, Dallas. These use sound effects and clever copy to comically dramatize a problem and then present as the solution. In one 15-second execution, a cat is swallowed by a vacuum cleaner as the announcer says, “We know a great vacuum repair shop…and a 24-hour vet clinic. We know around here.” A baby cries throughout a second spot. Announcer: “We know where to get diapers…and formula…and a vasectomy. We know around here.” The annoying sounds get your attention from the first second; the offhand delivery of the announcer provides a beautiful contrast that forces you to pay attention to the content of the message; and the unique wording of the payoff, “We know around here,” brings it home. Perhaps best of all, the messages are localized with real retailers’ names in each community. This ads a dimension of realism to the spots, and delights at least some of the businesses that advertise with the company.

Earlier, I characterized radio production as relatively inexpensive. Certainly that’s true here. To allow our minds to picture the action, these commercials require just one announcer and the kind of sound effects that are available for free at any recording studio. All that was needed, besides a client with a sense of humor, were the imagination and skills of the TM creative team of Leigh Sander, Nikki Donaldson, Travis Parr, and Dermot Faulds.

The Power of Imagination
One last thought about Theater of the Mind is that, budgets aside, some things simply work best in our imaginations. Even if the various groups that protect animals and children would have allowed these commercials to be filmed for real (fat chance!), and even though the action could have been created digitally without putting cat or kid in jeopardy, would anyone really want to see the result? And let’s not even contemplate the vasectomy.

Radio is also perfectly suited for another technique called deconstruction, or stripping the proposition down to its essence. Here’s a brief deconstruction, courtesy of my mother: “Bones make good soup.” They can also make good advertising. In part, this relates to the difference between the product and the brand. A decent working definition of a brand is the product plus how you feel about the product plus how the product makes you feel about yourself. Chevy is a brand, but before it’s a car or truck, it’s steel, fiberglass, rubber and electronics. The product is how these elements are assembled, and a lot of good commercials have come from telling this story. You can also deconstruct the product benefit. Potato chips are potatoes and salt fried in oil, but they are also irresistibility. “Betcha can’t eat just one,” for Lay’s, got to that very primal product claim as effectively as any selling line in the history of advertising. 

Another local brand, American Airlines, is also doing it quite well—in fact, American’s advertising may be the only the thing the company is currently doing well.  Of course, virtually all advertising for any airline these days, other than when there’s a price war, is deconstructive. I mean, what are you going to say? In particular, what can you say when you’re American Airlines in this captive, knowing market, a company that everyone here has at least half of a love/hate relationship with? This unenviable task has fallen to TM, and, again, the agency has come through on radio.
The creative team of Shep Kellam, Bill Oakley, and Jason Neibaum has cleverly punted with a radio campaign that deconstructs the “We know why you fly” idea down to its bones. Since they can’t very well talk about long lines, canceled flights, and the rest of the catastrophe that air travel has become, they remind us of the things that await us once the trip is over with spots built around the line, “It’s not just a seat on a plane, it’s a seat on a flight to your life.” 

Against a corny and affecting arrangement of the corny and affecting American jingle, the corny and affecting announcer copy reminds us—so sincerely we don’t notice even a hint of defensiveness—that, “An airplane ride, no matter how pleasant, can’t compare to holding your first grandchild or closing a deal with a handshake.” Another spot is dedicated to the super fans who follow their teams around and pre-empts for American the title “The Official Airline of the Away Game.” When a message is this beautifully delivered, we pay no attention to the man (or even the flight attendant) behind the curtain. Such is the distracting power of deconstruction.

And such is the selling power of radio advertising.

In more than 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in New York and Dallas, Spencer Michlin has created advertising in all media for Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Ford, the brands of Proctor & Gamble, and many more. His work has won virtually every advertising award. He can be reached at [email protected].

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