Salty, Soggy Copy


(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]


  1. Just before this blog gets trundled off to the dank recesses of the archive, I want to let readers know I will be making a special, low-ball offer that demonstrates the strategies I have been providing.
    The next piece is already in the can and has been delivered.
    The one that follows, however, will provide those folks who hail from Missouri and who insist on, first, being shown – an exceptional opportunity to get that. Precisely.

  2. Further note to Phill:
    Yes, Phil, we did nothing BUT direct response ads. We were “on sale” 36 weeks of the year. The distinctions are about the “approach” I was using – the elements of which I have been describing here.
    I have always understood that radio has been, mainly, a direct response ad medium.
    What I have been insisting is that those ads can be made to be even more listenable and… more effective.

  3. People who know of Kevin are also well aware that he manages quite well as a salesman/copywriter.
    So, I don’t mind prodding him with contrary, alternate approaches and calling him vile and vicious names, like a “highly functional traditionalist”. 🙂
    I should mention here that for all those Sportchek years, I was also on the air – applying the techniques and enjoying extraordinary results.

    However, I did everything covertly. I told nobody nuthin’ about what I was up to – out of what became a realized fear that management would freak out at the weirdness – similar to the feedback I get here.

  4. I haven’t hurt anyone’s “eligibility for serious, big dollar price/item radio schedules.” And I rarely agree with Ron on anything. Other than we share the same disdain for cowardly, anonymous retorts in this otherwise noble forum.

  5. That’s a fair request – if that’s what it was. I try to avoid the “dig me” sentiments, but in this case – here’s one.
    I was engaged by a local sporting goods outfit with two stores – one in Edmonton and the other in Calgary.
    My job was to do the voicing of radio, the on-camera presentations for TV and. most importantly, I edited all the copy – using the very methods I have been proposing here.
    Fifteen years and 3 sets of owners later, we had reached 350 Sportchek stores from coast to coast. They were paying me by the pail. But, after 27 years, a fourth, corporate owner took over and dropped out of radio and TV. Sales crashed. It was still a fabulous run. “Blue skies”, indeed.

    • If that’s all true-nice work.
      Sporting Goods stores in the USA would die without price/item advertising. It’s a very competitive business with Bass Pro just merging with Cabela’s. You must have used price advertising. You can’t move merchandise just showing pictures of golf clubs and backpacks without a price.

  6. More of Ronnie’s subjective, unsubstantiated, nebulous opinions-only nonsense. Never have I seen an actual client success story out of Ronnie, naming an advertiser who Ronnie caused increased sales or profits. It’s all “make it sound better” blue sky crapola.

  7. I don’t sell radio, and the anonymous troll, shelly, doesn’t read or comprehend.
    The irony, as I describe it, is that my job is to assist on-air folk and the copywriting crews to provide more listenable and effective materials so that the salespeople have much better product to take to the street.
    I readily admit that I am disappointed when commentators dig in and defend an indefensible status quo while stepping all over their own faces in the process. But, I am no longer surprised. There’s a lot of that going around.

  8. Fun to watch you wiggle, Ronnie. They’re getting wise to your BS. You can tell that you’ve never sold, Robinson. Salespeople are pretty honest people. It’s the voles in the back room like you who you have to watch. Cumulus call yet?

  9. If possible, Phil, try settling down. I have always appreciated that “direct response” ads are the cookies and milk for radio.
    Kevin, on the other hand, and like myself, understands that even those ads can… no… must be better written.
    Plus, given that Kevin is my most ardent and articulate adversary on these matters, he is, at least, willing to consider any provided options.
    More to follow.

  10. Note to Phil: I have never said that “direct response ” ads are bad. What I have insisted on is that they are almost always poorly written.
    But, that’s all right. When uninformed people start protecting a status quo that hasn’t been adjusted for 50 years, they have their own credibility to consider.

  11. Indeed, Kevin and I are on the same page as we agree that “the messaging drives the behaviours”. In other words: “Creative drives traffic and sales.”
    The specifics we can work out in the parking lot. 🙂
    That’s why I perpetuate the argument.

  12. Kevin,

    I believe it was also Ogilvy who said “Advertising is a relatively simple matter made confusing by complicated people.” And Robinson is a complicated specimen.
    You know, Kevin, that radio has had limited success in getting big dollars from:
    2.Grocery..and, to some extent-
    3. Car Dealers
    (automotive is a big dollar radio advertiser, but for years, newspapers got all the price/item display ads)
    The reason that radio lagged in these categories is that people like Robinson told them that price/item ads that run in newspapers don’t belong on radio. (He’s dead wrong)
    Robinson loves..LOVES..creative-hates price/item.
    Advertisers love price/item. Why? It works! And..Kevin…with your pats on Ron’s back today-
    you’ve hurt radio’s eligibility for serious, big dollar price/item radio schedules. Hey Kevin? Check Sunday’s paper in your town-all the price/item circulars for Christmas. Your station get any of that money? They appeal to retail BUYERS-not jingle hummers.

  13. Agree with all or not, Ron brings attention to the most powerful closing tool in local direct media sales: killer creative.

    “Advertising is a business of words infested with people who can’t write.” David Ogilvy said that. Radio is surely a business of words. There are no images. Like any movie, T.V. show, web page, banner ad, pre-roll or ordinary radio ad, all start with a script.

    Its not just that most in radio don’t know the rules of written persuasion. They don’t even know there are rules. Sadly, their scripts are based on their own unfounded opinions and not tested methods and proven appeals. Poor devils.

    There’s nothing new under the sun. 1+1 is still 2. You can’t say: “I disagree, I think in this instance 1+1 feels more like 3.” The same basic human appeals that worked on cavemen still work on today’s most discerning consumers.

    Promise of benefit is the heart of any great ad. Specifics are more believable than generalities. Attention spans are not growing shorter. Long copy, equally written, still outsells short. The three most persuasive words you can use in any ad are still free, new and YOU! Ads that end with a strong call to action (usually NOW or TODAY) pull better than those that end with: “swing on by sometime, if you see an OPEN sign in the window, park your ride and come on in!”

    And those of us in media sales who are in control of the message, who steer the creative vessel, enjoy a huge CLOSING advantage over ordinary, media reps hawking a one sheet, spot package given to them by their “Sales Manager.”

    And Ron’s article spotlights the importance of “the creative” in securing LOCAL DIRECT advertising dollars.

    Just ask radio sales people in any market that depend on local direct billing. They’ll tell you, great creative, customized and client specific is what they need most to close more sales.

    So, don’t listen to detractors Ron! Tell them: “Close with the creative and watch local direct billing soar!”


    Don’t e mail me if you find typos or misspellings in this e-mail! Luv to all! Radio is alive and well and no industry had more creative minds roaming halls than ours!

  14. Yeah. It’s kinda like every major advertiser: Same message. Different approaches. Plus, Cosmopolitan has it figured out, as well.
    Dare I mention “reach and frequency”…?
    Apparently, Phil either misses that or maybe he figures the concept doesn’t apply here. I wonder, however, if Phil has learned anything. Some don’t.
    I had this one written and in the can some time ago.
    Next time – more specifics! Woo-hoo! 🙂

  15. Nice thing about reading Robinson’s regular column today is that you’ll never have to read it again. He writes the same material week after week.
    It’s like the first Cosmo magazine from 1981 with an article entitled “How To Have Great Sex”.
    That same article is rewritten and put in every monthly issue since.


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