Tips & Techniques: What Did He Say?

by Dave Oliwa

Writing copy that's easy to understand is work. Real work. The "K.I.S.S. Method" (Keep It Simple, Stupid) that the Old Dogs used to tell you about is not as simple as it seems -- at least when it comes to writing it. The words we use to convey the idea of "buying this right now" have to have some sophistication, don't they? I can answer that one for you. Maybe not.

Years ago, before they went out of business from infighting within their management, the Ronco company and its spinoff, Popeil, marketed incredibly weird products. Things like a machine that would scramble an egg inside its shell! You remember these ads; they were loud, obnoxious, very stupid, and terribly simplistic. And, it made a "great Christmas gift!" But wait, there's more! The spots worked.

I shutter to think how many American households are actually scrambling their eggs in the shell every morning. But, I digress. The crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa says, is the fact their copy was simple. Very simple. So simple, in fact, it would insult my intelligence -- until I read the Ronco company was the most successful marketer of battery-powered junk in the nation. This was the legacy of Ronco, and "it's only $9.95!"

Ronco's copy worked by communicating ideas simply. "It's this from Ronco." "It does this." "And this." "And this." "You'll use it." "You'll love it." "Save time." "Save money." "It's easy." "It's fun." "And it works." "Buy one now." "Buy one for a friend." "For the office." "For the car." Hell, buy a case of them and save fifty times as much! You get the picture. Whatever they said was said in short, "get the point," "buy now" sentences.

Writing simply may not make you feel like you've written a masterpiece, but your audience will respond. That's what your station's client is wanting, and expecting to happen.

Instead of saying "this shoe has leather uppers and double-stitching to ensure long life," say "it's an all-leather shoe made to last." It's not "a dynamic mega-bass boost enhancer circuit," it's "a bass booster that kicks butt."

Question anything your client gives you. De-bunk the bull and figure out what he's really trying to sell. Then, sell it at face value. Unfortunately, in the 1980's, advertising tried to confuse the listener by inventing "new ways" to spruce up the old stuff. So much so, Bill Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers University, started keeping track of it and presented the Doublespeak Award to the best "enhancers" of the language. You might want to read his book, Double-Speak (1989, Harper and Row, NY, available at book-stands everywhere), and check how he sees advertising language and its deception. I have to warn you, Lutz is not exactly thrilled with copywriters, but he's got the right idea in spelling out his concerns for over-doing the "sizzle" (Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle). From his chapter entitled With These Words I Can Sell You Anything, the most popular words in spots are: new, improved, better, extra, fresh, clean, beautiful, free, good, great, and, light. Sound familiar?

Let's talk about billboards (the side-of-the-road kind). You're in your car, the radio's blarin', the truck in front of you is belching smoke like a weekend barbecue, some jerk is tailgating you, and, a billboard goes by. Your eyes touch on it, if only for a fraction of a second, but you get the message -- "Quick! Call the office! Metrocel Cellular." The boys in the billboard company advertising cubicle really have a handle on this limited time to communicate their ad message stuff. They know they're only going to get a second -- or two, tops -- to impregnate the message into the mind of Minolta. Radio is no different, but it's a heck of a lot better. We've got thirty or sixty seconds, music, sound effects, and vocal emphasis to boot! (You know, I need a car phone!)

Simple copy is also an advantage for the voice talent. He or she will read the copy better if the sentences are short, the ideas are simple, and they understand what the copy says -- I mean really understand it -- to the point they can mean it when they read it.

Whoa, what a concept! It's almost subliminal when you say what you mean. Even the best devil's advocate won't be able to read a negative meaning into your copy. That means credibility for what you are saying. And that means acceptance; the first, and probably most important, step in selling anything to anyone.

If you're a Production Director like me, you probably have a tendency to be pertinacious at times, but to vituperate the listener is disadvantageous. Although my apperception of simplicity varies from day to day, I must occasionally retrovert to a less supernal approach in writing copy. No matter how educated you are, you can't sell something unless the customer knows exactly what he or she is buying. So, let me close with alacrity by wishing you success in keeping it simple.

And remember, don't forget. Do it today.

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