Do It... It Builds Character!

By David Hughes

Nothing makes a radio spot work better than making it work, and that means doing whatever it takes to get the warm bodies into the client’s store or on their phone. If characters are a viable way to do that, great. If not, don’t try to force them into action. If you want a career in script writing, Hollywood always needs waiters and waitresses. Radio needs copywriters that can, at best, entertain while informing. If one of those qualities need to be scaled back in your copy, it’s the entertainment, not the information. That is the most important thing I can say on the subject.

I’m tempted to just end the article there, but I know that some of you will be determined to stick that great talking bug zapper character you dreamed up last night into that funeral home spot today. Therefore, I feel it’s my civic duty to throw out a few pointers on how to utilize characters in a way that will make your commercial work, not just entertain.

The best type of copy to use characters on is generic copy. The more information you have to place into a commercial, the less room you have for character development and story line. So, when the sales rep brings in four sheets of copy points including eighteen price points, the store hours, the address, the manager’s name, ten brand names and the number of parking spaces he normally has available (on average), this might not be the best place to whip up a character masterpiece. Nothing can make a piece of copy sound bad quicker than two guys desperately trying to squeeze a “conversation” into a thirty when all it consists of is one character saying, “Hey, have you been to Bill’s Bargain Finders?” and the other replying, “Why, yes I have! It’s right on the corner of Elm and Delaware Streets in McComb where they have a great selection of…” Please, just refund the client’s money first. It will save both them and you much embarrassment. (And please note that I did not make this copy up. I actually heard this spot run. Of course, the names and locations have been changed to protect the wonderboy in Hattiesburg, MS that wrote it.)

This brings us to the first rule of character-based copywriting:

NO ONE IN THE HISTORY OF MOTHER EARTH HAS EVER, AND I MEAN EVER, SAID “Why, yes!”

If you’re not a student of people’s everyday speech patterns, don’t try to write this kind of copy! It just winds up sounding forced and phony. (And okay, that’s not really the “first rule of copywriting.” The first rule of copywriting is actually, “Never let your professionalism stand in the way of doing your job,” but that’s another article.)

Try to look at writing a character-based piece of copy this way; it’s just like writing a thirty-second play. You have to have some kind of story line involved, some type of closing or conclusion with a payoff, and the characters have to sound believable. If any of those three things are missing, then you should have just written a straight piece of copy; it would work much better for the client.

Also, whenever you’re writing copy with characters, you need to keep in mind the pool of talent available to cut it. Do you have someone on staff who does a mean impersonation of a waffle? Then there’s your idea for that new breakfast menu copy for the local Chew ‘N Gulp restaurant. But don’t feel restrained by what you know your staff is capable of; if you have a great idea, ask around. You might be surprised at what some of the people around the station are capable of.

However, I don’t mean to imply that you should just pick characters willy-nilly (it’s a technical term). You should pay close attention to what type of business you’re writing the copy for, and then try to pick a character that doesn’t fit that type of business.

No, I’m serious.

This is a great little trick you can use, if you can pull it off. Sure, anyone can write a commercial for a automobile dealership using a salesman and a shopper, or even a talking car. But it’s not very often that you hear a commercial with a talking squid asking to take the new “General Moaners Paddywagon XL” out for a quick squirt, er, spin.

Using what some would consider an “inappropriate” character or characters in a piece of copy serves several purposes. First, it causes the listener to think. When they hear a salesman talking to a buyer, the listener says, “Oh yeah...been there, done that,” no matter how snappy the patter between the two characters. But if they hear, “I wanna test drive a new car.”  “But you’re a squid! What do you need a car for?” Then they have to stop and figure out why on earth someone used a squid to sell cars.

Second, it makes the listener pay attention. No one wants to hear another sales pitch, but everyone loves a good story. And a squid test driving a car sounds like it might be interesting.

Third, it makes YOU, the copywriter, THINK. You can’t just bang out another piece of run-of-the-mill copy when you’re trying to write dialogue for a squid—well, at least most of you can’t. (Those of you who can, please don’t call me; I’m frightened of you.) When you start having to think about what you’re writing in a different way, and it results in the listeners paying attention and thinking about what you have written, it’s a winning situation for the client. And remember, that’s what’s most important.

And fourth, it makes the client’s ads stand out. And almost every client likes that. Notice that I said “almost.” Occasionally, you’ll bang out a piece of copy that’s so witty, tight, and fun that you’ll start composing your acceptance speech for the Addy before you cut it. And then, THEN, that rascally ol’ client listens to it and says, “Well, that’s cute, but I don’t like it. Let’s do something else.” I’m going to give you the most important piece of advice I can for when this happens. In fact, this may be the single most important piece of advice in this entire piece, so listen very carefully: IT MAY ADVERSELY AFFECT YOUR CAREER IN RADIO PRODUCTION TO CATCH THAT CLIENT IN THE PARKING LOT OF THEIR BUSINESS AND BEAT THEM MERCILESSLY WITH A WIFFLE BAT. (Or, it may not. Check your station’s policies on dealing with idiot clients.)

Unfortunately, not everyone will recognize your genius. When that happens, just remember that the customer is always right. Write them a typical piece of copy, make them happy, and then file that wonder-spot away. RECYCLE. Two weeks later, when you’re looking for a great creative idea for a spot, dust off that piece of copy and make use of your previous brilliance. Sooner or later, you’ll find a perfect marriage between a client and that copy. Or you may die alone and embittered. But that’s the risk we take.

Sometimes, however, anger at the client can produce great results. Let me tell you a story. Recently, a flower shop in a nearby town bought a package on our new FM and told the sales rep that they wanted something “funny.” (For some reason, those requests always land on my desk.) I said okay, and proceeded to bang out a piece of copy featuring a character I had created several years before, Sedgewick the Monkey. The sales rep took it over to them and played it and reported back that they liked it…sort of.

The flower shop wanted to run the ad, but said they really wanted something “slower.” For some reason, this did not set well with me, so I set off on a mission of vengeance. “So they want slow?” I said. “I’LL give them slow!” And thus was born Timmy the Turtle. This ad consisted of the announcer saying, “And now, with a word about ______________, Timmy the Turtle.” And then, a deep, pleasantly goofy voice said, “Duh-h-h-h-h-hhuh-huh!” for 21 seconds, until finally saying “Purty!” I cut this spot and gave it to the sales rep. Two weeks later, he still hadn’t taken it to the client. He was afraid that she would take it the wrong way. After being assured that I knew what I was doing (despite appearances to the contrary), he took it.

The client loved it.

It just goes to show, you can make anything work for you...even being royally ticked at the client.

If your client has a good idea for a character, use it. If the client suggests what, at best, is an unbelievably BAD idea for a character, use it. Just don’t use it the way he wanted you to. The best way to tackle a problem sometimes is to turn it on its head. If he wants a guy with indigestion in his Taco Hut ad, put one in. Just make sure that you indicate that this gassy guy ate at the competition’s hut. Never just turn away an idea out of hand; almost ANY idea can be used, if you do it properly. I once insinuated that a football player character in an Internet service provider spot hadn’t studied his play book the night before because his slow ISP had taken too long to load up pictures of Pamela Anderson Lee for him to, um, enjoy. The coach responded, “Son, even Pamela don’t take all night with (name of ISP we were advertising).” The client approved this copy to run as a sponsorship on a statewide high school football scoreboard show on our 100,000 watt FM. Again, almost ANY idea can be used, if you do it properly.

Keep an open mind, keep a warmed-up word processor handy, and keep a smile on your face when the GM says, “You used a WHAT in the new hospital spot??!!?” Remember, if lizards can sell beer, nothing’s off-limits.

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