In Commercials or Poems, Be Specific!

I have mentioned before on this blog that different types of writing often need to follow the same rules, and can often benefit from the same methods. Thanks to a  7th- and 8th-grade English teacher in Haiti, I’m sharing another example today.

When I speak to clients about how to write radio commercials, one of the many things I tell them is to read the finished script and do a ‘generic check.’  I ask them to read the script, but wherever the name of their business is given, replace it with the name of their competitor.  If the commercial still makes sense…it’s not a good commercial.

Edit it – or throw it away and start over.

A commercial needs to specify a business’ Unique Selling Point (also known as the Unique Selling Proposition).  The “USP” is an industry term referring to the one thing that sets that business apart from all the others.  Ultimately, it’s the answer to the question, “Why should I give you my money, instead of the guy next door?” If your Italian restaurant commercial sounds fine using the names of other Italian restaurants, someone did something wrong.

If you don’t know what makes you different, how will anyone??

I’ll spend more time talking about USPs in a future post, but for now I want to concentrate on specificity.

SPECIFICITY [spes-ih-FISS-ih-tee]: noun. The state of referring to an explicit or definite thing.

Whether it’s a radio commercial, a poem, or even an on-air radio bit…don’t assume that by trying to be generic you’re going to attract more people.  If you’re not trying to be generic, but still come up with a script that can be easily appropriated by another business, your script is missing a key component.

I was reminded of this by a teacher in Haiti named Ruth, who operates her own blog, There Is No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town.  Last Friday, she posted a love poem by Craig Arnold titled “Bird-Understander,” in which the speaker addresses his partner about a particular facet of her personality that is particularly endearing to him. You can read the entire post here.  The poem is a terrific example of specificity because as one reads this poem, one realizes this person is a unique individual unlike anyone else – at least in the speaker’s mind.

In her blog post, Ruth points out:

“A love poem should be specific, not a generic verse suitable for a  greeting card.  The beloved is not interchangeable with others, and  poetry about the beloved shouldn’t be, either.  By that standard, this love poem succeeds brilliantly.  When we read it, as people who don’t  know the woman being addressed, we see a beautiful quality in her, and  we see why he loves her.  We know what makes her special.”

If you’re an advertiser, do we know what makes your business special?

Not all mortgage companies are created equal

Several years ago, while working as the production director for a five-station radio group, I was asked to record a new client who was going to come to the radio station to voice his spot.  I was handed a copy of the script just a few minutes before he arrived, so I had no time to edit the script or even speak to the account rep who wrote it.

But I knew we weren’t going to be able to record it the way it was written.

It was basically sixty seconds of bullet points:  “if you need a mortgage, call us”….”offering a variety of options”…”residential or commercial”…blah, blah, blah. And then it concluded with multiple calls-to-action, including the location, phone number, and website. (Multiple calls-to-action are another of my pet peeves, but that’s another blog post)

Any – and I mean ANY – other mortgage company in ANY part of this great country could easily plug their name into this commercial, and by changing the contact info, they’d have a  script.  Again I say, if your commercial script can be used by anybody else in the same industry…that’s a major problem.

So when the client came in, we chatted about the script and he expressed his displeasure with it before I even had a chance to express mine.  He felt it was too generic (!!!), he didn’t think it was written the way he would naturally speak…he didn’t even want a physical address or a phone number in the script, because the only call to action he wanted was to direct listeners to his website!

I breathed a sigh of relief, and did a little Happy Dance on the inside. The client and I were both on the same page.

The spot needed to change, drastically.

I had an idea.

Letting the client speak for himself

He was a very friendly, animated fellow who knew his business, knew why he was unique, and knew what he wanted his commercial to accomplish.  While he was talking to me about it, I suggested he let me turn on his microphone, and I would record him speaking extemporaneously.  I figured I could edit the best parts into a :60 commercial and let his unique message and unique delivery – at least for a mortgage broker – be front-and-center.

This is what we came up with:

StarOneFunding_Image-#1 9-2006

Have you ever heard a mortgage company commercial like that? This was just one of 3 or 4 spots we ended up creating, and he loved them. They were unlike any others on the air at the time, and because of the unique features of his website (along with his style of delivery), they stood out from the pack. Try plugging another mortgage company’s name into that spot; I’d say it definitely passes the ‘generic check.’

Making a habit of ‘generic-checking’

Next time you need to write a commercial, plug in another business’ name and contact info and see what you get. Can any business use this script? Next time you write a poem about someone or something special, try plugging in someone else’s name.  Could this poem be about anyone?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”…start over.

After all, if the business you’re promoting isn’t unique, why should anyone be expected to patronize them? If the person you’re writing about is as ordinary as everyone else, why waste the ink?

If someone was going to write about you…wouldn’t you want to pass the ‘generic check?’

20 thoughts on “In Commercials or Poems, Be Specific!

  1. What a useful post, Matt! I’ve never thought about specificity in terms of writing an ad, but of course! We’re planning to work on a book trailer, and I will be hearing your voice in my head. Thank you. a. ps – I love that “Bird Understander” poem and Ruth’s post too!


  2. Great post, Matt. It holds a challenge for Voice-over pros as well. A big one. I know I faced the same frustration everyone else faces about distinguishing themselves from the rest of the pack when figuring out the copy of my website. I’m still not entirely certain I have applied the USP to it, although I know I’ve tried. I’m not ashamed to say I could use some help if you find the time to look at it. I know I picked up on and quickly parked my website with an adjective that has been on the rise to describe voice and/or performance.


    1. I’m glad you mentioned websites, Kevin, because the same principle holds true: one needs to express what makes them unique in a compelling way. As for your site, do you feel there is something about your voice, your style, your service that truly sets you apart from everyone out there? Using phrases like ‘your satisfaction is our prioroty’ may indeed be true – but things like this are stated so often by so many people that they lose their effectiveness. How many times have you heard a car dealership tell you they have no-pressure sales, the lowest prices, and ASE-certified technicians? You hear those phrases all the time, so they end up going in one ear and out the other.

      If you there is a unique way that you can quantify HOW you prioritize your clients’ satisfaction, that could be helpful. If there’s something unique about your style, or the types of clients you work with, or anything (and if you don’t know, keep thinking, it’ll come to you)…these are all possible nuggets of gold.


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