Advertising Copy For The Ear
( Originally Published 1932 )
THE client, in the person of his advertising manager, was talking to the radio man from his advertising agency. Two pieces of typewritten copy lay on the advertising manager's desk.
He pushed one of them towards the radio man. "There's our middle announcement for to-morrow night's program," he said. "It's longer than the ones we've been using, but it's what we want. I've spent three days getting some real selling talk into it. It's been O.K.'d by the sales manager and four vice-presidents—and I want our announcer to read it as it is, without changing a comma."
The radio man picked up the copy, glanced quickly through the five hundred typewritten words. "You're sure you want to use this?" he queried.
"Absolutely!" the advertising manager replied. He looked down at the other piece of copy on his desk before he continued. "This announcement you've written for us is all right, as far as it goes, but it isn't real selling stuff. It just suggests an idea. It's a caption for a good piece of copy, that's about all."
"Of course it is," the radio man answered. "That's just what it should be. In a network radio program, there isn't time for anything more."
It was the advertising manager's turn, and he played his ace. "There isn't time!" he ejaculated. "Listen—we're buying thirty minutes on a big chain of radio stations—we're hiring a good orchestra—and you tell me we can't take time from our musical program for a three-minute announcement about our product!" He sat back, satisfied that his ace lay on the table—that in a moment he would pick up the trick that would give him game and rubber.
But the radio man was preparing to trump the ace. "You're buying a half-hour on forty-five stations," he re-marked. "All right. Let me ask you something. Sup-pose you had bought forty-five expensive outdoor display locations. Then suppose you'd hired a high-priced artist to do a knock-out illustration for you. After he got through, would you try to jam five hundred words of selling copy on those boards?"
The advertising manager opened his mouth, to speak or to gasp—but the radio man kept on talking. "Think it over," he advised. "The entertainment part of a broad-casting program—in your case, the music—is really the illustration of your radio advertisement. Your commercial announcements are the actual copy. And your radio program doesn't get any more concentrated attention than a good outdoor display does. The air isn't any place for long, detailed, reason-why selling copy, because it won't register. That's what I meant when I said there wasn't time for this announcement you've written. It won't mean a thing to your listeners. They won't absorb it. Radio's a good deal like outdoor advertising. You can suggest sales ideas and plug the name of your product. And that's about all the average listener's ear will convey to his mind. Any complicated merchandising talk about your product is wasted. That's why I think that middle announcement I've written is more effective than this one you've given me."
The following evening, the commercial radio program in question carried as its middle announcement the short, terse, sales-suggestive piece of copy prepared by the agency's radio man. The advertising manager had gone to bat with the sales manager and the four vice-presidents and won them over to the radio man's ideas.
This conversation isn't exaggerated. It isn't unusual. Scenes similar to this have occurred in a good many advertising manager's offices during the past few years. With the great growth of broadcast advertising, it has taken time and effort to make advertisers realize that radio really requires a new technic in copy writing.
Because it appeals to the ear alone, and because the ear as a sense organ has never been educated as the eye has been, radio advertising copy must be more indirect than any other sort of printed publicity. A comparison of broadcasting with the different forms of printed advertising shows that radio most closely resembles outdoor advertising because the sense-impression it can register on the prospect is a fleeting one. True, a million listeners may be tuned to a network program, but the amount of material you can make their minds absorb and transmit to their brains at any one time is comparable with that which can be embodied in a good outdoor display.
Commercial radio broadcasting might well be termed "indoor advertising." Some sort of entertainment comparable with a striking illustration-must be used as an attraction to induce listeners to tune in the program in the first place. This attention-compelling feature may be a good orchestra, an outstanding vocal or instrumental soloist, a good dramatic entertainment of almost any sort, a noted personality or a famous name, or a stunt broad-cast of some kind.
The program's selling copy or commercial announcements must be simply worded, interesting, long enough to suggest the desirability of owning or using the product —short enough so that no listener will prove he is bored by switching to some other program. Above all, these announcements must be written in conversational style. They must talk to people as they are accustomed to being talked to. They must sound as though the person who reads them were actually speaking them—not as though he were reading typewritten copy.
In this last requirement many commercial announcements fall down. Writing for the ear differs materially from writing for the eye. And because practically all writing in the past has been for the eye alone, or for the ear and eye combined, most writers encounter difficulty in putting their thoughts into successful radio copy.
The average writer considers his work as it looks on paper—as his eye transmits it directly to his brain, with-out his ear sensing the audible sounds of the words. The experienced radio writer may read his copy silently from paper, but what his brain absorbs is the sound of the words. Whether he reads his copy aloud or not, he has developed an ear-mindedness which enables him to know how his material will sound when it emanates from loud speakers in millions of homes.
Experienced advertising copywriters who are trying their hand at radio would do well to dictate their copy, rather than write it on paper. Then, whether they use a stenographer or a dictaphone, they can listen to the copy afterwards, without seeing the actual typed words. This process enables them to criticize their own work intelligently, but the opinions of other people will probably be found even more helpful.
If your office boy, a stenographer other than your own, the porter who moves desks around your office and two of your friends' wives can understand every idea you have put into your radio copy, merely from having it read to them, then probably every listener who hears it over the air will grasp what you were trying to say.
If any portion of your copy is vague to any of these critics, simplify it. Change three-syllable words to two-syllable equivalents, twos to ones, eliminate words which look well in print and substitute those which sound crisp and lively when read aloud; cut down the length of sentences, repeat key words and key phrases where you have used indefinite pronouns, delete all alliteration, try to eliminate all "s" and "f" sounds, then all possible "m" and "n" sounds—in every possible way endeavor to develop conversational style rather than prose style.
Good radio copy will never look well on paper. It usually appears "over-written," because it must be redundant to a certain degree. Repetition of words and phrases is almost always necessary, in order that no listener may lose the sense of an announcement before it is finished. Copy for the air must be composed in extremely simple style, so that no listener can fail to grasp your full meaning. And in this connection, remember that part of the success of radio advertising is undoubtedly due to the fact that broadcasting enables you to reach a great number of illiterates who could never read your printed advertising copy, or who would never take the trouble to decipher it.
Next to the possibility of boring your listeners, probably the most common pitfall of radio copy is talking down to a portion of the audience. Nothing will make a tuner-in twirl his dial more quickly than the impression that some commercial concern, through the voice of a radio announcer, is high-hatting him.
Akin to high-hatting your listeners is the bad habit of patting your product, or your program, on the back. This is natural, probably, with the average advertising copywriter. To him, while he is writing copy for it, there is only one product. Not only are there no competing products—there are no other products of any kind.
Similarly, when he turns radio writer, there is only one product—and only one radio program. He unconsciously adopts the attitude that the radio audience of the United States has been waiting breathlessly for a week to hear the one particular fifteen-minute program for which he is writing the announcements. And whereas in print his one-product attitude has made his copy better, more vigorous and more productive, the same state of mind makes his output laughable when it bobs up in the average home after dinner, via the radio route.
People have been educated for centuries to believe what they see in print. The process begins with the first reader put into a child's hands. It continues all his life, receiving daily boosts from his morning and evening newspapers. The very fact that advertising copy is printed lends it a sincere appearance. Any size or style of type seems to stamp a statement as truth.
But when a radio announcer starts reading the script for a commercial program, his words do not bear the sanctity of type. His statements are those of a mere man —an unseen voice out of the nowhere into the living room, but nevertheless a man—a fallible creature—a person whose words are open to question by any one who hears him.
And when the commercial announcements he is reading contain bold statements, superlatives, dearly bought testimonials or hard-to-prove facts, the radio listener of average intelligence sniffs, chuckles or samples another program. It is astonishing how exaggerated and ridiculous an extravagant claim for a product sounds over the air. Try it and hear for yourself.
Every word the announcer is reading may be the whole truth. Perhaps the product is that good—really and truly. But without the time or the opportunity—or the attention on the part of listeners—to back up every statement, broadcasting provides a very expensive medium of advertising for the advertiser who wishes to superlativeize his product.
Better to say half the truth—10 per cent of it, perhaps—and be believed, than to speak it out boldly in its entirety and have your listeners snicker and fail to believe you.
Mechanically, that is about all there is to writing radio copy. The ability to turn out copy that sounds sincere—that suggests buying the product—lies in writing a simple, conversational style, and in developing that style through constant practice and listening to the copy after it is written. There are fine points of technic, yes, but any writer of average intelligence will invent his own as he progresses. Writing for radio is such a new development that any writer of average ability who will concentrate on his specialized form of copy will soon develop an individual style which will be effective.
Over-punctuation of copy will help the person who is going to read it. Use four times as many commas as even your most painstaking English professor taught you to use, and wherever there is a natural pause in a sentence longer than a comma would indicate—use a dash. Re-member that the announcer who reads your stuff has to breathe once in a while. Space your statements so that his breathing will be natural.
Keep your sentences short. Forget all you ever learned about the rules of syntax. You don't have to be able to diagram a radio announcement for it to be effective. Pile phrase on phrase and forget a verb in a sentence now and then. Remember that a series of high-priced adjectives means nothing when it is heard over the air. In other words, make your radio copy "talky." Make it sound as though a thought had suddenly occurred to the announcer, and he was voicing it in informal, conversational American, as he would if he were sitting in an average home, chatting with three or four members of an average family.
The matters of developing a radio program idea, of building the entertainment portion of the program and of shaping the program along merchandising lines are considered in other chapters of this volume. But in this short discussion of radio copy, it seems necessary to stress the fact that the copy portion of any radio program must be in tone with the entertainment portion if the whole program is to accomplish its objective.
Naturally, a certain dignity must run through all the announcements in a program which features a symphony orchestra. On the other hand, a program of dance music by a "hot" band will be more effective if the announcements of each number and the commercial announcement are treated in a lighter vein. Politely kidding the product may be good for the listener in a certain type of program. Most certainly, it will be good for the manufacturers of the product.
Radio is the one form of advertising in which the aver-age advertiser will gain the most from informality—from slipping a smoking jacket, or even a bathrobe, over his stiffly starched shirt. Remember that a whole lot of your listeners have their shoes off—and some of 'em don't own a pair of slippers !
Every one who tackles radio writing—or any other branch of broadcasting—will soon encounter one certain mystic word. It is whispered in the corners of control booths—mumbled over the voodoo cauldrons of microphones, mixing panels and monk's cloth. Whenever you observe two radio people conversing in low tones and notice one of them reverently bow his head and murmur three syllables, you can be positive he has just uttered the mumbo-jumbo word of radio—"showmanship."
Ever since broadcasting began, broken-down vaudeville actors and ex-directors of ex-little theaters have been ranting that radio needed showmen. Unsuccessful people from the stage, ten years after they should have been successful, have sniffed at advertising agencies, broad-casting companies, radio stations and radio program agencies, claiming that broadcasting in general, and commercial broadcasting in particular, lacked this certain mystical element—"showmanship."
But commercial broadcasting programs have continued to blunder ahead, with few of these "showmanship" experts finding permanent paying positions in the ranks of the radio employed. And gradually radio has killed vaudeville, ruined the road for dramatic companies, well-nigh consumed the concert business—teased and tormented the talkies.
Has this great entertainment enterprise we know as radio brought about these results without showmanship? Certainly not. But showmanship of the sort radio has needed and has utilized since its beginning hasn't been provided by the type of people who have been most critical of showmanship standards in broadcasting.
Radio showmanship, like radio writing, is a new development—a development which has come about through sifting an immense quantity of ideas through the sieve of radio requirements. Bit by bit, the old tricks of stage, silent movie, concert, vaudeville and burlesque technic have been brought face to face with the microphone. Many of these pet devices from other entertainment mediums have been discarded as not suiting the requirements of broadcasting. Many others have been adapted —given ear appeal, instead of eye appeal-and have proved even more effective in broadcasting than in their original form. In addition, radio has developed many of its own tricks of presentation—bits of technic which are essentially radio, effective in this new, blind medium of entertainment and nowhere else.
After all, showmanship is only brains plus imagination, plus the bravery to try something new. Combined, these qualities boil down to an active sense of the dramatic and an ability to dramatize even commonplace things. These qualities, the radio business has always possessed—and the advertising business has contributed its full share of them to broadcasting. Witness the immense strides made in radio entertainment since the entrance of the advertising element.
Brains—imagination—bravery—dramatic instinct and ability. Where will you find these qualities more necessary than in the advertising business? A successful advertising copywriter must possess all of them. If he isn't a dramatist—if he isn't a showman—he can't be a good copywriter, or a good advertising man.
The chatter about showmanship in radio continues—and every day, at their own desks and in the radio studios, advertising men continue to bring to radio the sort of showmanship radio requires. For after all, these advertising men are experienced showmanship experts. They are the chaps who have spent years dramatizing a bar of soap, injecting romance into plumbing fixtures, making your wife cry because she hasn't a new mechanical refrigerator or the latest type oil burner.
They have tackled commercial broadcasting with the same spirit which marked their entrance into the other specialized fields of advertising. At the outset, they have been quiet, willing, eager to learn. They have analyzed what they discovered as they went along. They have spent plenty of time in experimentation, and in the process they have branded as false many of the fetishes which older entertainment mediums have bequeathed to broadcasting.
Today, advertising is such an essential part of the broadcasting business-the two are so successfully wedded that neither party would consider a divorce. And radio writing is an essential part of the advertising agency's service to its clients.