In copy writing, it’s all about the details

Last week, I wrote and produced a short video commercial for my wife’s business.

There are two problems with that statement.

ID-10021920 (Times Square)
Advertising: These folks know how to do it right.

First, I’ve never produced a video commercial before, ever. I’ve written hundreds of commercials – and produced thousands of radio commercials – but never produced a video commercial. Second, if you have no experience doing something like that and it’s going to have a big impact on the impression people get about your business, I always say it’s best to have a professional do it.

If you’ve never patched a roof before, you’re going to call a roofer. If you need your car repaired and you don’t know the difference between a carburetor and carbon dating, you’re going to bring it to a mechanic. So if you need a commercial or corporate video produced, seek out someone who has more experience than you do. It’s your livelihood, and it should be important enough for you to have it professionally handled.

As I said above, I didn’t do that. I did have some good reasons, though…

Understanding what I wanted to accomplish

Unlike many folks who have never written commercials before, yet decide they need to be the ones to write, produce and/or voice the things themselves, I knew before I even began how the commercial was going to be used and what I wanted to accomplish. This was not going to run on television – it was to be used via the internet (social media, etc.) only, and it was to garner the attention of a specific group of people who were unfamiliar with the specific benefits of the products my wife sells.

I also had 25 years of copy writing and multi-track audio production knowledge behind me (along with some basic video editing experience), so even though it probably wouldn’t be perfect, I suspected it would be suitable for her purposes. And trust me, I’m my own worst critic, so if it was even slightly subpar, I would’ve scrapped it and gone a different route.

Oh, and due to my ACL reconstruction surgery back in March, a major car accident in late winter, and a leaking roof (see above!), I had a zero budget.  So a one-man DIY project was born.

It all starts with the script

Like a novel or short story, there are several things a good commercial script needs to do. In chronological order, they are:

  1. Attract the listener’s or viewer’s attention
  2. Connect on some emotional level
  3. Develop interest
  4. Create desire
  5. Compel action

A commercial should also showcase the product’s or service’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – the feature or benefit that makes the product or service stand out from all the others. And in the case of a television commercial, it should be able to get its point across even if there’s no audio. Doctor’s offices might have the sound turned down and sports bars are often so noisy one can’t even hear the person they’re with, much less the TV – so visuals are extremely important.

Knowing the benefits and USP of my wife’s products, I put the script together and realized I wasn’t going to need to provide a voiceover. (Ironic, isn’t it, that a voice guy produces a video commercial he doesn’t even get to voice?) But it didn’t need it, so I didn’t do it.

The commercial and the breakdown

First, let me show you the commercial and then I’ll break down some of the details I was particular about…

As I mentioned before, I knew the specific audience I was after: health-conscious folks who are not opposed to the vegan lifestyle. Of course, one does not need to be a vegan to appreciate botanically-based products that don’t test on animals, but the word “vegan” is so well-known these days that if you hear or see the word, you immediately understand its connotations.

So after attracting the attention of people who can appreciate veganism, I list other facets of Arbonne’s product’s USP: they are gluten-free, kosher, botanically-based. Then, rather than telling the viewer they need to buy something or they need to improve their lives or they need to do something else, I ask a simple question. Having just seen the benefits of the products – without me telling the viewer these are the benefits – the viewer can now make that connection on their own.

And when you can encourage a viewer or listener to draw their own conclusion and subconsciously take part in your commercial…it’s much more powerful than you telling them this and telling them that and hoping they believe you.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
No need for a voiceover; the sounds of nature worked quite well on their own.

Just like most commercials, I show a problem (your health & wellness products are not vegan/gluten-free/etc. even though you are) and I offer a solution (try Arbonne) – but I do it subtly. The call to action is subtle, as well – I don’t command the viewer to buy now, save now, limited time, blah blah…I simply suggest they learn more.

I wanted this video to be almost like a conversation, and being too heavy-handed with my approach would have been counterproductive. That’s why I opted to use some light sound effects of a natural setting rather than a voiceover; I didn’t want the commercial to feel like a commercial.

Three more details you didn’t even notice

One comes immediately after the words “botanically-based.” From the moment the commercial begins, there is a rhythm to each of the words that flashes on the screen…but then there’s a pause before I ask my question. I deliberately did this to allow the viewer to consider what these words have to do with each other and where I’m leading them. If I posed the question too quickly, the USP – those benefits I listed – would not have had a chance to sink in quite enough.

Remember, it’s a conversation – and I didn’t want it to appear the commercial was doing all the talking. As I said previously, I wanted to allow the viewer some time to process the information and become a “part” of the commercial, and “part” of this conversation.

Another detail is that I did not mention the product name until slightly more than halfway through the spot. Some folks will tell you the name has to be front-and-center right from the get-go – but those are the folks who feel advertising is done best when it’s a one-way conversation. The way I look at it, if I’ve been able to keep you compelled long enough to view the commercial, you’ll stick around for the payoff.

The third detail is the little child and mother at the end, which I didn’t include just because it’s my son and wife. The Arbonne company sells its products via independent consultants who are often moms and daughters – and even dads. I wanted to evoke a familial feeling to the spot to underscore not only the Pure-Safe-Beneficial tagline, but the fact that families are buying, selling, and using these products to make their lives better…and a little child with a mom is about the best representation there is of that!

Pay attention to the details

So when you’re writing – whether it’s a commercial, short story, whatever – don’t lose sight of the details. Some might be superfluous (I could have included another word at the beginning and crammed too much info), some might not be on target (I could have listed products, but that wasn’t the point of the spot), and some might just be too wordy.

Know when to leave those out.

But other details – like knowing who you’re writing to, understanding what you want to say, and spending some time determining the best way to connect with the viewer/listener/reader – are imperatives.

If you write a picture book, short story, or commercial in less than one day, you’re either really lucky or you’re doing it wrong.Please don’t do it wrong.

If you don’t know how to do it, hire a professional. Your commercial and your roof will be better for it.

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!

PoetsGarage-badgeTo keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

 

A good story, well-told, always trumps the gimmicks

This is going to be a short post; as you may know, my wife gave birth to her second child a mere 3 weeks ago, so neither of us have been getting much sleep lately! Granted, I get more than my wife since she’s nursing the baby, but all that means is that I get 4 hours of sleep compared to her 2…so neither of us is ‘winning’ in the REM-stage department.

Because of this, it’s all I can do to help keep the house maintained while trying to actually do work. So I was considering  posting a short blog entry today when I came across this commercial; as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to share it.

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I’ve written previous posts about the importance of storytelling in commercials, the necessity of keeping the story and your message straightforward, and of the value of using language everyone understands.  I’ve also given numerous examples of why a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is so important.  Even if it wasn’t an advertisement, the following commercial is a terrific example of storytelling.

It does not rely on sexy women, talking animals, precocious kids, fantasy dream-sequences, or multiple jump-cuts. It is not funny, stylish, artsy, outlandish,or hip.

Rather, it features a simple-to-understand and emotionally stirring plot, and because it is told more visually than verbally, anyone watching it can understand what’s going on. Although the USP may not be explicitly stated, this is a brand most folks recognize as being unique unto itself, and the ultimate message of the commercial – that it’s a special kind of person who uses this product – is unmistakable.

That message is driven home by the last sentence spoken at the end of the spot:

Move over, Budweiser Clydesdales…there are still more heartstrings yet to be tugged, and Guinness has a firm grasp on them.

What do you think of the commercial – as an ad, or simply as a story? I’d love to get your thoughts!

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PoetsGarage-badgeDid you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it!  To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter , Facebook, Pinterest, and SoundCloud!

Truth, honesty, and shredded cheese

It has occurred to me how easily annoyed I am by bad, confusing, or poorly-written commercials. Some folks would just let it be. Not me; I’m in this biz, after all.  I try to turn these lemons into luscious lemon curd. (With lemonade, all you can do is drink it; lemon curd, on the other hand, is useful for hundreds of desserts!)  So starting today, I plan to spotlight different commercials now and then on this blog, individually.  That way, rather than spending a lot of time analyzing several commercials in one post, both you AND I can get through it all much quicker…

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Something has been bothering me for months.

It’s a question I never realized even needed to be asked; that is, until I saw a TV commercial for Sargento® brand shredded cheese.

One does not need to be a culinary genius to assume – correctly – that pita chips come from pita bread, graham cracker crumbs come from graham crackers, and those little crushed Oreo® pieces you find in cookies ‘n cream ice cream are, indeed, actual Oreos.

Imagine my confusion, then, when this popped up on my TV:

So, it’s cheese…that’s been shredded…from a big block of…cheese.

I have a friendly message for the good folks at Sargento.  If you’re introducing cheese that is shredded from a big block of cheese as a new product – be prepared to answer the following question:

“What the hell were you selling BEFORE??”

All these years, I’ve held the crazy notion that packaged shredded cheese always started out as a big block that was subsequently shredded. Apparently, I’m way off base here.

This commercial annoys me for two reasons. On one hand, I think it’s great that they’re selling real shredded cheese – but if that’s not the way packaged shredded cheese is produced by other companies, TELL ME MORE. Tell me what shredded cheese actually is.

The other thing that bothers me is that it’s being promoted as something “new.” If they said shredding the cheese off the block is the way they’ve always done it, then it would underscore their commitment to quality and tradition. But by saying it’s new, they leave customers wondering how it’s different from whatever they sold previously.

Truth is good. Quality is good. Unique Selling Propositions* are good.

Confusion…not so good.

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* Unique Selling Proposition:  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?”

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PoetsGarage-badgeDid you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it!  To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter , Facebook, Pinterest, and SoundCloud!

An ace up your sleeve: making clichés work

ID-100105596 (waitress)“Quality ingredients!”

“Friendly staff!”

“Just like homemade!”

I think if I hear another restaurant commercial with these phrases in it, I’m going to do something embarrassing, loud, and possibly violent.

These are advertising clichés, and you don’t need to be a commercial copy writer to recognize them when you hear them. We’ve all heard car dealer ads that promise “no-hassle sales” and “ASE-certified mechanics.” We’ve all gone to restaurants with “reasonable prices” in a “comfortable atmosphere.” We’ve all been told that “conveniently located” businesses holding “inventory clearance sales” offer “rock-bottom savings.”

And we don’t buy any of it.

Worthless words

What’s that, you say? You use quality ingredients? Oh, what a relief – your competitors down the road probably use really crappy ones.

A friendly wait staff? Wow! I had gotten so tired of dealing with the witches at all those other restaurants.

ID-100174426 (mechanic)Let me tell you something: I’ve been producing radio commercials for nearly 30 years, and I still don’t know what “ASE” stands for, what it means, or why it’s important. (You’d think if it was THAT important, someone would have told us by now, dontcha think?)

Oh, and another thing: the next time you hear about an “inventory clearance sale,” just remember…

EVERY sale is an inventory reduction sale! That’s the point of a sale – to reduce the inventory!!

Whew, glad I could get that off my chest. Moving on…

Giving meaning to the meaningless

We hear these clichés so often, they’ve lost whatever meaning they may have had – if any – when they were first used. Having written and produced so many commercials over the years, my brain has a sort of cliché-radar, and I’m always quick to try to avoid them.  But then along came this client…

It was a new Italian-American restaurant that was opening soon, and they wanted radio commercials that would get their selling point (or, Unique Selling Proposition) across without sounding like every other commercial out there. Yes, they served delicious food made with quality ingredients, had a comfortable atmosphere and reasonable prices…but we couldn’t say that because no one would believe it. And if you serve good food with nice people – how do you set yourself apart from all the other places out there?

Answer: clichés.

I decided to utilize some of those overused, meaningless phrases and turn them on their heads, to illustrate why this particular restaurant was different. The client loved the premise, so we put together 3 different commercials, each one focusing on a slightly different aspect of the restaurant. They had to be :30s – I would have preferred :60s – so word economy was very important. When I was done, here’s what they sounded like:

I think that first line of the first commercial was what sold the client on my approach. Telling the listener to “go ask mama to make you something” completely turns the tables on the “home-cooked food” cliché, and sets the tone for the rest of the spot as well as the other two. The client was happy, the radio station was happy, and so was I!

All’s well that ends well

Just remember that when it comes to clichés, every cloud has a silver lining.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; it’s for the best. If the cat has your tongue, take one step at a time – what’s the worst that could happen? And if you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.

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Did you like this post? Find anything interesting somewhere in this blog? Want to keep abreast of my posts?  Then please consider subscribing via the links over here on the right! (I usually only post twice a week – on Tue. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day!)  You can also follow me via Twitter or on Facebook.

Commercials: The little things are starting to pile up

Last week, I wrote about details in writing – whether it’s for commercials or creative writing. I spotlighted a couple of commercials that I thought could have been improved and one that I felt was well-done.

And because there seems to be no end to the number of TV commercials that annoy me…I present ‘Part 2.’

I hadn’t planned on doing another post on commercials today – or even on advertising in general – but soon after I had finished writing last week’s diatribe, I felt another one welling up inside me.  So please forgive me for indulging in a second little rant; heck, it’s my blog, after all!

Of course I hope, as always, that some of points I make about copy writing and production can be directly correlated to other types of writing such as poems, stories, and books.  Continuity errors, misleading untruths, and confusing messages are hardly confined to the advertising realm.

Which unravels faster: the clothes or the message?

Some things get better with time: wine, cheese, friendships. A sales message should not be one of them. In the case of the following commercial, it took repeated viewings – and an explanation from my wife – for me to understand just what’s going on. This is a perfect example of a message getting lost in creativity:

Here’s your trivia question: what’s with the yarn?? Why is this car unraveling all these clothes? If you don’t know, go ahead and watch it again and see if you can figure it out.

Now then, if you have the answer, congratulations – you did better than me.  I had seen this TV spot innumerable times and never knew what was going on.  It took my wife at least seven viewings before she suddenly announced, “I finally figured it out!”  She explained that the clothes are unraveling because winter is over and the car is bringing spring to the world. In actuality, after I paid close attention to it, the commercial is advertising a sale.

No prices, no features, no Unique Selling Proposition…just an announcement for a sale.  This commercial basically takes half a minute to say, “We’re having a sale.”  I could be way off base here, but wouldn’t it be nice to know why I should care about the sale – or why I should want an Infiniti? Is it too much to ask for a few little details? Perhaps, if one can afford to own an Infiniti, one already knows all about the features of the Infiniti and therefore one needn’t concern oneself with the price of an Infiniti.

But that negates the need for a sale now, doesn’t it?

Fun with science

Every time this commercial comes on the TV, my wife sighs. Not because of the commercial itself, but because of my reaction to a mere 1.5 seconds of it:

This isn’t a bad commercial…but it is misleading. Check out what’s happening :15 in. See those little yellowish critters, squiggling around in the sewage? Those are supposed to be enzymes, breaking down the waste.  Well, guess what?

Here’s a news flash:  enzymes are MOLECULES, folks!

They are naturally-occurring chemicals – not living creatures that scoot around inside your septic tank, chewing up your poop like Pac-Man chasing after a cherry.

This is what drives me nuts.  I know this dramatization has nothing to do with the true efficacy of Rid-X, but when I see this blatant error (or misleading animation – I’m not sure which), it makes me wonder what else I’m being misled about.  Be true to your subject! Whether you’re writing a commercial, poem, or novel…remember that suspension of disbelief only goes so far.

A good commercial, made better

This spot, by contrast, is a fine example of a clear, compelling message:

Zero Water TV spot: ‘The Waiter”

Zero Water filters are so good, they can filter out wine from tap water! I have no idea if that’s true, but it only took me one viewing of this commercial to understand that message. Like most good commercials, it’s a story: wine is poured into tap water, tap water is filtered, the Zero Water filter filters out the wine while the competition fails. And the genuinely surprised reaction by the man in the audience is a nice touch – a small detail, like we talked about last week – that makes a big impact.

But the commercial wasn’t always this good. Here’s how it first appeared:

The two biggest changes the ad agency made were the most important. First, they took the focus off the waiter; his goofy expression takes away from the straightforward, realistic style of a more-or-less-serious spot. And the reaction of the woman was, well, uhh – almost a non-reaction. She’s just sort of…there.  The gentleman in the newer spot appears to be honestly surprised and impressed, and that air of realism is important to the overall tone of the spot.

Be honest, be clear!

Don’t muddle your message with some cutesy ‘hook’ – like pulling strands of yarn off people to sell a luxury car in the spring. “Spring” is not the message, and “yarn” certainly isn’t, either.  And don’t assume your potential customers are too stupid to know what you’re telling them, such as enzymes that go chomp-chomp-chomping around your septic system.  Be honest, be clear, and make sure viewers (or listeners, if you’re in radio) know what you’re selling and why they should care.

Those two things – the product/service and the benefit of that product/service – should be first and foremost in your mind.

I’ll take “highly effective” over “highly creative” any day.

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?’