While attending the University of Texas, I had several jobs. One of which was a men’s store (haberdashery). The owner was a terrific salesman named Sol Ginsberg. He was a diminutive man with white hair and big black horn-rimmed glasses. He spoke with an Eastern European accent.
If a customer was on the fence and in danger of slipping out without buying an article of clothing, Ginsberg would lower his voice to a whisper so the customer would have to bend down and lean in to hear what he was saying and then he would announce, “Now I’m going to tell you something that is going to…shock you!” And, sure enough, the customer was usually shocked. Then Ginsberg would magnanimously declare something like, “I’ll pay the tax.” It usually worked and Ginsberg would make the sale.
Now it’s my turn to tell you something that will shock you. I have discovered the primary reason that most advertising “doesn’t work.” The problem is the script.
We’re failing our clients and we’re failing our audiences. How? By writing and producing crappy, cliché-riddled commercials that don’t work anymore (assuming they ever really worked that well to begin with). Bad copy is one of the main reasons clients say they “tried broadcast advertising and it didn’t work.” We know that people who watch and listen to radio and television stations have anxieties. We know that many of our clients have real solutions to consumer issues. But instead of making commercials that specifically identify and solve consumer anxieties, we offer commercials crammed with clichés, sales, and disclaimers.
Cliches are the herpes of human language. Cliches only exist in commercials because we believe we need them. Why? Because we (and our clients) have been hypnotized to believe that commercials are supposed to look and sound like commercials. In fact, that’s why commercials look and sound like, well, commercials. For years I’ve been working on ways to improve scripts. I implemented The Best Friend Test: reading the script asking myself if I’d ever say those exact same words to my best friend. But even that still seemed unnatural. Then it finally hit me like a hot fist at the end of a wet kiss (Firesign Theatre). The problem with commercials is the script itself.
In real life, local direct clients don’t use scripts when they talk to their customers on the showroom floor, in the store, over the phone, or in their office. Because they don’t have to. They know what to say to make their cash registers ring. They give potential buyers talking points, reasons to buy. And they do it in real human speech: NO SCRIPTS.
We’ve spent years teaching our on-air talent to sound natural and conversational. But then we get to the commercial block and it’s like somebody suddenly slipped LSD in your coffee. For several minutes in a row, it’s CRAZYVILLE, with scripted garbage written in language that real people don’t speak. And it sounds fake. Really fake, like the following scripted skit…for a funeral home.
“Hey honey, I’m home.”
“Oh, honey…well, while you were out…well, I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“Huh? Well, what’s the bad news?”
“Well, your Aunt Ruth died.”
“Oh, NOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOT AUNT RUTH! Now, what’s the GOOD news?”
“Well, the funeral will be at McMorris Funeral Home.”
“Say, honey…that is good news! McMorris is family owned and operated since 1986. Sons Eddie and Rick McMorris both work there. They’re conveniently located and we’ll love their beautiful new viewing area. And their staff is so friendly.”
“Oh, good grief!”
“Wait a minute honey, did you just say ‘good grief’?”
“Yeah, I guess I did. McMorris Funeral Home…that’s good grief.”
Wow. And somebody had to sign off on this. They sound Wackaloon nut-jobs, don’t they? A completely loony-tunes couple, obsessed with the cliché attributes of a funeral home. Imagine if they were real people. You can’t, because real people would never talk that way.
As I’ve said before, scripts are hard to write because they’re fake. We don’t really talk the way we write. So when clients voice their own spots, why do we insist on taking them back to a 4th grade “read out loud” level when they advertise? Their sing-song delivery makes them sound like prisoners of war reading forced confessions. The script invites clichés and usually never includes the actual talking points that the client uses on a daily basis. And the scripted spot usually winds up as a chest-beating tribute to the client’s business and not at all about solving everyday consumer problems.
When you explain this script problem to the client they usually get it. I have witnessed several that have asked me, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me about this before?”
The client is the expert in his or her field. They know things that our audiences don’t know. Our job is to help them, in the clearest language possible, teach consumers the reasons why it’s in their best interest to buy from our clients. People don’t like being “sold,” but they don’t mind being informed. That’s why the unscripted commercial works so well.
I call this process “To Sell the Truth.” Are you for the truth or against the truth? It sounds so much warmer. We are used to judging people by the sound of their natural voices and we can actually get a sense of their moral imperative. We associate a real human voice with the client’s business. We get a sense that behind the client’s office walls there are real people with real hearts and souls with real information we might use to make our lives safer or more luxurious.
Scripted commercials, on the other hand, put up a wall. Instead of a human voice we get The Big Announcer Voice reading clichés, or a client reading clichés. Scripts are usually all about the client, while the commercial should always be about what’s in it for the customer. By asking good questions you’ll extract these talking-point nuggets from your clients.
Try this concept for yourself. Clients love it. Listeners and viewers don’t mind “To Sell the Truth” because it looks and sounds more like content than advertising. And, these commercials really stand out in the spot break.