Who Remembers Radio’s Spots?


(By Ronald Robinson) I have only occasionally thought of myself as sporting anything even slightly close to a sadistic personality, especially when I’m not appropriately dressed for the part. Very few in the audience saw me on the radio. I wasn’t brandishing a riding crop and I wasn’t ordering anybody around. I wasn’t contagious, either. But, as partial full disclosure, I might yet be an assertive carrier. So, pay attention! (Snap!)

There exists a unique, extra-special element within the strategies, methodologies, and principles I have been suggesting, in order to make radio a far more listenable and effective medium. Trotting this element into public, I confess, does afford me a modicum of pleasure while straining my already tenuous credibility.

My years of radio experience have demonstrated that, any time I spread this one element out like it was a luxurious full-length mink coat, lovingly splayed on a furrier’s salon floor, somebody is going to detonate. Spontaneously, they become outraged and (figuratively) explode into frothy, rouge mists – followed by a plopping cascade of bits of awful offal.

Many radio traditionalists and others who figure they are dealing with contemporary wisdom will discuss the topic of “top-of-mind awareness” – casually and with unchallenged certainty. Doctrine has it that radio commercials are placed on the air for the express purpose of generating just such top-of-mind awareness. The reasoning is more than accepted, it has become unassailable.

Yet, the logic breaks down from a slight nudge, especially when the concept of memory is brought forward. Again, the accepted rationale is that an audience member (potential customer for an advertiser) will hear certain commercial messages over time and, when they find themselves ready to purchase that advertiser’s product or service, they will then think of the ad, saddle up, and mosey on over “to a location near you.”

Let us, momentarily, tread onto arguably dangerous and shaky ground. The exercise is to ask a number of listeners the following question (one that has everything to do with top-of-mind awareness and “memory”): “What are the last three radio commercials you heard, where you then went out and bought the product?” Most respondents can’t get past one – if they can even do that.

A number of explanations come to mind – none desirable. They might include:

  • The listener wasn’t paying close enough attention to the spot.
  • The audience member’s memory is suspect.
  • The spot was terrible and didn’t impact on the audience member.
  • The audience member wasn’t “in the market” at the time.
  • The listener was unwilling to concede that a lowly radio spot might have influenced them.
  • They tune out of commercial clusters. So theirs are virgin ears, and they are excused from the test.
  • The advertiser’s offer or deal wasn’t compelling enough to motivate interest, traffic, or a purchase.
  • Radio doesn’t work.

Whether categorized as reasons or excuses, these are all unquestionably “real.” When these elements are considered, “panic” would be a reasonable, albeit unsatisfactory, response. But, are we really pooched? No, we are not. Here again is the unknown, unexploited factor that, nevertheless, has likely been saving radio’s bacon for all these years.

Conscious recall (memory) is not required to generate traffic or buying responses!

Now, this radical pronouncement could be discounted as an outrageous piece of ooga-booga emanating from a suspiciously troubled individual. Or, it could represent the beginning of an understanding of how radio really works, and an appreciation of the spectacular sophistication and complexities in play when our nifty electronic signals impact other humans – our audiences.

Radio folk are quick and eager to discuss top-of-mind-awareness. Further, it is done with the understanding that an exceptionally holy grail of radio advertising has just been introduced. However, just to offer the phrase implies the elements of consciousness and memory are not only connected to buying behaviors, but that we are depending on those elements to be dynamically engaged – short and long term. Evidence to support the efficacy of the top-of-mind position is minimal. So we lie.

Because of the neurological processes that radio audiences unconsciously experience – and they have no choice in this – carefully produced radio advertising can, indeed, be akin to “brainwashing.” I grant this is a distasteful, undemocratic, and sinister term. When ads are designed, however, to take advantage of these neurological processes, they become more like machines that not only wash brains, they also scour, spin, and toss the Downey fabric softener in during the drying cycle. Great ads also neatly fold.

Further, people are far more likely and able to recall the ads they see in print, on billboards, bus boards and the like. I remember, for example, some grocery items I saw in flyers that were delivered a few days ago. (“Maxwell House coffee. $6.99!”) I don’t remember the content of the radio spots I heard yesterday or the content of the ones I voiced this morning.

Explanations for how these factors work for the benefit of radio and its advertisers, along with the methods to exploit their potentials are available. Given those potentials, stomping on the panic button can be delayed. I remind readers who are considering this material that they, too, are accessing through an electronic medium, resulting in the memories of this content to likely be of the very short-term variety. So. Does anybody consciously remember or recall radio’s spots? Memory? Recall? “Don’ need no stinking memory or recall.” Not remotely required. Exciting, though, when it does happen.

We are, then, reprieved. We are not released. More work is ahead. For further consideration: Well-crafted, effective spots are literally more like unconscious, post-hypnotic suggestions than are the Svengali-like, brutish commands we regularly employ. Those demands belong to the realm of, and are to be administered only by, cruel but nattily attired authoritarians. (Snap!)

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach, and has trained and certified as a personal counselor. Email him at [email protected]


  1. I’m trying to find a commercial about the effectiveness of radio. it has something in it about an elephant in a tea cup. Any idea where I could find it?


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