(By Ronald Robinson) While swapping some emails discussing the business of copywriting, my friend – he of the “Old School” – and I, of the, shall we say, “Whizzy, New, Advanced and Superior School,” were promoting very different approaches. Cranking out listenable and more effective scripts for our trusting advertisers was the stated, desired outcome. Clinging to outmoded ideologies, I submit, is not conducive to that outcome.
I have often observed that the copy I was practicing to read and write as a young, part-timer is identical to scripts I am reading today as a V/O-guy. The only marked difference is the modern ones have had the decimal in the price points moved – one column to the right. Same-same copy for over 50 years! Staggering.
My friend pointed out a tradition of three words that were the most important in all radio copy. They were “new,” “free,” and “you.” The other one I used to get – also handed down in tablet form – was “fresh.” Sincerity and certainty aside, these prescribed words I would categorize as “sandbox semantics.” Some might agree that while these words show up in copy often and almost everywhere – especially the “you” – the impact is negligible. In the case of “you,” I have always identified this as a dangerous and toxic use of the second person – more off-putting than appealing or effective.
We each had an opportunity to adjudicate the other’s copy. He sent me his and I rewrote it. The content remained the same. Different linguistic processes were applied to my edits. His “creative” was left intact. Good stuff, too.
He pointed out some other edicts that have been handed down to copywriters ever since sandwich boards were considered high-tech advertising: Creative Directors patrol for, shall I say, superfluous verbiage.
Radio copy has been gutted or stripped to the point where it has become little more than bland “newspaper of the air.” Lists, price points, and “calls to action” are still the order of the day. These spots hide under the rubric of “direct response” ads. These ads are almost always abusive in their demands and insulting in their assumption that actual contact has been established with unknown, but still, somehow, “personal” listeners – and this has been exposed and vigorously criticized.
Harsh, unfounded edicts have defoliated scripts of all greenery. The living, advertising forest suffocates and dies, leaving only the raw materials for telephone poles. Insisting on the addition of extra price/product content eliminates more appealing, sensory, and effective descriptions. This has always been a sin met with derision and cruel punishments.
Are simple adjectives, adverbs, verb tenses, and sensory-based descriptions all that important, anyway? The short answer is: That’s all there is! But, to listen to standard-issue on-air presentations and second-rate examples of copywriting, very few practitioners have yet to even notice.
These are relatively small distinctions, meant only to briefly demonstrate how feeble our communicative efforts have been…and remain. That we disregard the magnificent potentials residing in the precise and imaginative use of our language to influence audiences leaves us anemic, benign, and wanting. Audiences are not only meandering through our world, mostly unaffected, I believe they are also bored and irritated.
Radio’s state of communications can be figuratively compared to a decrepit, three-masted, square-rigged hulk of a ship from the 18th century. Topsides may be freshly stained, but our tattered sails allow only for going before prevailing winds. (Triangular, more efficient sails had not yet been developed.) More importantly, our hulls have not been hauled out for half a century. We are fouled below the waterline. Stricken with tons of grasping moss and barnacles, the result of which allows us to make only enough headway to barely maintain steerage. Plus, laying shipmates aloft in wildly heaving seas and heeling boats during angry storms generates unnecessary, avoidable risks.
What we say and how, specifically, we say it are the only aspects of radio that have yet to be conscientiously addressed. It is not frivolous to insist we are still on the verge of a marvelous voyage of discovery and prosperity. However, without a scraped hull, a skilled crew, and stores for the trip, we leave port at our peril – a lubberly practice.
Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach. Email him at [email protected]