Fish Bicycles

fish-bicycleby John Pellegrini

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” This phrase was popular 20 years ago among the more radical feminists. While I’m not about to debate feminism pro or con, I think this phrase can also be used to illustrate a common problem in advertising, which I alluded to last year in the June issue of RAP (“The Nature of Sound”). Inappropriate advertising. Spots that have absolutely no value whatever in promoting the client’s business or services. Are your commercials guilty of this problem? Do you find yourself writing commercials that are as helpful to your client as a bicycle is to a fish?

Fish Bicycles occur in several forms, all of which start with the best of intentions, and usually wind up in Advertising Hell (time to repave that road, if you ask me). Sometimes they’re caused by inexperience. Sometimes they’re caused by creativity run amok. And sometimes they’re caused by cowardice. Since the first two are easier to track, we’ll start with cowardice first.

A vast majority of Fish Bicycles are caused by no one having enough courage to tell the owner of the business that his or her idiotic idea is just that, idiotic. Unfortunately, many times the reason why the spot is idiotic isn’t so much the message or the offer, but instead because the owners of the business insist on reading the script themselves. There is an example currently airing in some markets in America right now that illustrates this point. The spot advertises high tech computer services for business. The owner is trying to target huge corporate accounts. His copy appeals directly to CEOs and Presidents of Companies. Unfortunately, the owner himself is reading the script, and he comes across sounding like Homer Simpson. His grammar is horrible, and he speaks with all the style and grace of someone who dropped out of grade school.

Now, there are those out there who would say, “So what if he sounds sloppy? It’s genuine, it’s real, and it’s authentic.” Well, that may work for Robert De Niro, but not in this case. This client is trying to attract the attention of major corporate bigwigs—the people who went to Harvard, Yale-- the Ivy League schools. But the client comes across in these commercials as though he’s not even educated enough to be a janitor in those schools. If I’m the CEO of a major multi-million dollar corporation, and I’m looking for a high tech service provider, I’m certainly not going to be impressed with someone who can’t even read a simple script without sounding illiterate.

This is why I’m against having business owners read their own commercials. Sometimes you luck out, and the owner is capable of doing a decent job. But the vast majority of the time you wind up with a Fish Bicycle. The client wants to attract a sophisticated and knowledgeable customer base, but winds up attracting no one because of his or her inability to read the commercial script effectively and convincingly. The few successes there are in owner read scripts don’t outweigh the huge number of failures. I can guarantee that those business owners who claim that “radio advertising doesn’t work” are often those owners who insisted on reading their own scripts.

Many people like to defend owner read scripts by pointing to either Lee Iaccoca or Dave Thomas as prime examples. Here are the two problems with those examples, and why you should never use that defense. Lee Iaccoca spent years on the lecture circuit prior to doing the Chrysler spots. He’d been on camera and on radio countless times. He is a seasoned professional public speaker with as much experience in public performance as most actors have. Most business owners have nothing even close to that much experience. Maybe Donald Trump and Ted Turner can come across as more polished than Lee Iaccoca, but there aren’t many more. Dave Thomas, on the other hand, did not have much experience in public speaking. His advertising agency thought he should appear in some of his commercials. But he had the good sense to insist that since he wasn’t experienced in commercial work, that he only speak two or three lines per spot, and a polished, professional voiceover actor would read the rest of the script in the Wendy’s commercials. Of course, over the twelve plus years that he’s been doing these spots, Dave has gotten better at it, but he still never has more lines than the voiceover actor, or other actors appearing on camera with him.

 The most frustrating part of this problem is that the majority of salespeople in radio aren’t interested in telling the client he or she is making a big mistake. They’re only interested in taking the client’s money. It is hard to tell someone who wants to spend money on advertising with your station that they have to chose between one of only two results, satisfy their ego, or get customers in their stores. But this is what separates the best salespeople from the has-beens and the also-rans. The unfortunate reason why business owners do their own commercials is that the people who are supposed to know more about advertising than the owners do, fail to point that fact out to them.

One of the best salespeople I’ve ever known told me that a good salesperson “should be able to walk into a client’s shop on a cold call, tell the guy his place looks like shit, and still get the sale.” He then took me out and proved it to me by doing it. We went in to a cold call and met the owner of the store. The salesperson looked him right in the eye and said, “this place looks like shit; you must be busy as hell!” The owner laughed and said, “you are so right…” In the space of less than five minutes, that salesperson had an order for advertising on the station. It gets better. The owner briefly flirted out loud with the idea of doing his own commercial. The salesperson asked him point blank, “Why do you want to do that?” The owner, looking a little flustered by the question, replied, “well, my competitor does his own spots.” To which the salesperson responded, "yeah, and he sure looks like an idiot in those commercials, doesn’t he?” The business owner conceded that point to be true, and the subject was never brought up again. P.S. the business owner continued to be a loyal client for that station even long after the idiot competitor who did his own spots went out of business. The salesperson summed it up for me afterward by saying, “you don’t get results by agreeing with everything the customer wants; you get results by teaching the customer what to expect.”

Call it the car salesperson syndrome. Why is it that every car dealership owner thinks he or she needs to appear in their own commercials? All they wind up doing is serving the stereotype of the typical grease-ball lowlife egotistical car salesperson. Even women car dealership owners look like grease-balls when they appear in their own commercials. They claim it works because they have customers. I claim they turn off far more people than they attract with the spots, but of course, the advertising industry conveniently doesn’t track that information.

Fish Bicycle spots occur when the people who have the expertise fail to use it.

 Then there’s the example of creativity run amok. In the course of desperately trying to impress, the script winds up being highly creative without selling anything. Or, winds up having nothing to do with the business being promoted. I was given an example of this problem a decade ago when I was living here in Chicago the first time. I was working free-lance for a friend who had a small recording studio and was helping them establish a radio commercial production business. We were called by a small suburban advertising agency that was trying to land a well-known restaurant as a client.

The salesperson slash Creative Director (this was a small agency) faxed the copy to us. Apparently, while doing research on the restaurant, they discovered that the restaurant was located near a river. So, the gist of this brilliant spot concerned the story of a couple of fur trappers paddling their canoes down the river where they meet some Indians (this was before the days of Native Americans). Through a long series of stupid, worn-out jokes stolen from the worst of the borscht belt, the fur trappers and the Indians become friends. Finally, in the last ten seconds of the spot, they decide to have dinner together at the famous restaurant that just happens to be close at hand.

I told the salesperson slash Creative Director that the spot didn’t really have much to do with the restaurant, and it would be a waste of time. The salesperson slash Creative Director merely informed me that since I hadn’t worked for an advertising agency before, I obviously knew nothing about advertising. My friend, the owner of the studio, upon hearing that remark, told the salesperson slash Creative Director to take the business elsewhere. We found out later that the spot was eventually produced, but the restaurant owner rejected it out of hand because “it didn’t have anything about my restaurant in it.”

Of course, before you get the idea that I’m some sort of phenomenal expert on predicting the success or failure of an advertising campaign, let me tell you the story of my biggest Fish Bicycle. Another restaurant was involved; this one was called Rosebud Pizza. It was a cold call, first time advertising client. The salesperson only told me to “come up with something creative, because they’re new.”

Now, that summer, the movie Citizen Kane was celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was all over theaters, television programs, newspaper and magazine articles. Everywhere you turned there were tributes to the cinema’s greatest masterpiece. So, with all that attention being paid to the movie, when I saw the name “Rosebud Pizza”, it didn’t take much intelligence on my part to write up a Citizen Kane spoof spot. Note that the key word in that last sentence is “intelligence.” I mimicked the opening of the film with a voice saying “Rosebud Pizza” followed by the sound of glass breaking. Then, a newsreel soundtrack with an announcer, just like the film, “Billionaire Newspaper Publisher Charles Foster Smith passed away today, his last words were reputed to be, Rosebud Pizza.” Then the film stops, and a ”Jimmy Cagney Newspaper Man” style voice says, “Alright boys, there’s your mystery. Go out like the great reporters that you are and find out what he meant by Rosebud Pizza.” Then another reporter says, “But that’s easy, boss. He was probably wishing he could have another pizza from Rosebud Pizza,” etc. All the reporters then go on to describe how great the pizzas are from Rosebud Pizza. Then the boss says, “Well that’s it, boys! Let’s get over to Rosebud Pizza right away!” I even went so far as to end the scene with the receptionist bursting in and announcing, “Boss, some guy named Spielberg is on the phone and wants to sell you a sled.” Then I tagged the spot with the client’s location and something about “Rosebud Pizza, a masterpiece of Hollywood proportions” or wording to that effect. Sure, it didn’t say much about the product, but the tie-in was a promotional dream come true, or so I thought.

The salesperson thought it was a great idea, too, and took the cassette of the finished spot out to the owners. They listened to the entire spot, with a look of horror on their faces.

 “Why is someone dying while mentioning our pizza?!?!” The salesperson tried to explain, “it’s a parody of Citizen Kane.”

 “What’s that?”

 “It’s a famous movie.”

 “Well, I’ve never heard of it! This is absolutely the most disgusting, sickening, awful thing I’ve ever heard! Get out of my store immediately and never come back!” That’s what their reaction was, according to the salesperson who was quite surprised by the outburst as well. He found out later that the owners had named the place Rosebud Pizza because they loved roses. What roses have to do with pizzas is beyond me, but I guess the same can be said for my commercial. Hindsight provides the course we should have taken, which is BEFORE you act on your “Brilliant” idea, make sure the client is familiar with the concept you’re trying to put across, and is open to “something different.” Asking vital questions like these at the outset prevents a lot of anger later.

 The third and final cause of Fish Bicycles is inexperience. And if you can’t figure out how that happens, then you’d better go back to school.

Remember, no one ever made any money by supplying fish with bicycles. Make sure your concepts are appropriate for the business you’re trying to promote. Make sure your spots don’t forget the client, and make sure that if the client insists on doing his or her own commercials that they at least don’t come across making themselves and their business look anything less than professional. That doesn’t mean they can’t have fun, but there’s a fine line between fun and f**’d up, besides the fact that both start with F-U.

Advertisers, especially new ones, have only one shot at capturing the public’s attention. You can talk all you want about rotation, placement, frequency, campaigns, and the like, but it all comes down to 30 or 60 seconds. That’s all the time the client gets to capture the listener’s attention. If the listener doesn’t like what they hear, they’re gone, and they’ll tune out or turn off the spot every time they hear it again. And that doesn’t just hurt the client, it hurts the station!

Make sure the client’s commercial spends those 30 to 60 seconds capturing the public’s attention for the right reasons, and not because they look or sound stupid. Commercials can make or break a business in ways you or the client never intended. Fish don’t need bicycles, and your client doesn’t need to have his or her advertising campaign destroy their business. The big agencies know this truth and spend all their time working on all these factors, which is why they make so much more money than radio stations do on advertising. Yes, sometimes they cause fish bicycles too, such as the “adult” Ronald McDonald campaign; but more often than not, they succeed better than most radio stations do in long term client success. Don’t forget this most important point: The big Agencies don’t do anything for their clients that we can’t do for ours! There’s no good reason why we can’t succeed as well as the agencies. It’s all a matter of quality service.

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