I used to help emcee Spamarama™, the world’s largest tribute to Potted Pork Products here in Austin, so I know something about pink meat and opening cans, but that’s not what this article is about. This article is about how to create great commercials. I have learned the hard way that local direct clients are not creative geniuses when writing commercials. When I let them dictate their own commercials, the chances of cancellation at some point due to lackluster response was virtually certain. So, I figured out early that if I could win control over the creative message, the campaign’s chances for success would be much better and I’d keep the business longer. So as the client and I discussed creativity, I started asking the clients harder questions.
Mike Wallace died last week. When I was a young journalism student at the University of Texas in the 1970s, he was one of my heroes. What got me about Mr. Wallace was his sheer audacity. He asked the real questions that provoked real responses from the people he interviewed. He was an expert at “poking around” until he found the nerve. And then, when he poked that sensitive area, the real “meat” (usually self-incriminating) would come out of the interviewee. Regardless of whether you liked Mike or not, you must admit that like poison ivy, like poison jellyfish tentacles, he really knew how to get under someone’s skin.
My technique for interviewing local direct clients to evoke better commercial responses is not quite as caustic as Mike Wallace’s was, but it’s similar in some ways. Here’s how. I ask tough questions about “elephants in the room”, issues that the client’s potential customers are thinking about but NOBODY is publically talking about. I know how to talk to local clients and “open their heads”, like a can opener, so I can draw out what’s really inside of them. I’ll explain further, but first, let’s examine the standard industry process for extracting commercial information from clients.
The broadcast sales executive visits with the client to get an essential copy and creative points. The client, with the same lifetime of experience of watching television and listening to the radio as his media rep, regurgitates his standard cliché “ad-speak” as he dictates what he wants to talk about this month in his advertising scripts. He can’t help it. Like us in media, all of his life he too has been exposed to radio and television commercials. So, when he’s ready to talk advertising his eyes roll back in his head and he begins vomiting up “ad-speak”, the foreign language of advertising.
He says for example, that we need to tell our audience that his business is family owned and operated. It’s important to mention that his sons both work there. He has three convenient locations to better serve you. His business is the best-kept secret in town. His service is the best in town. People love his loyal and friendly salespeople. And, as he drools out his favorite choice bits of magical memorized madness, his media sales rep dutifully writes down each familiar, age-old bite.
Like a trained robot, the media sales rep goes back to the station where he artfully inserts a few of his own clichés, until he has the perfect Crap-Master script notes to deliver to production. Then, the production director takes his turn. He edits, and in the process adds a favorite cliché or two of his own just to save a little time, and then cuts the spot with just the right amount of fake B-roll for television and sound-effects in radio. On top of that, he then pukes out the spot in a voice that nobody actually uses in real life. The finished result, Pink Slime. A cliché wallpaper commercial that looks or sounds just like everybody else’s commercial. It’s a spot with no bite, no spice, and with no basis in reality whatsoever. And, the commercial is rarely about the consumer, it’s usually all about the client.
Remember the game, ‘Telephone’, the one where you whisper something in somebody’s ear, then they whisper the phrase into the next ear, and 15 people later, you realize that the original phrase has been twisted into something completely different than was originally intended? The Pink Slime effect is just like that game. Despite the client’s best intentions, his message is completely distorted, written, and processed into a foreign language that consumers don’t really speak or comprehend.
What I do is call the client out as soon as the clichés begin to dribble out of his mouth. I was talking to the owner of a septic system company. “When you say ‘best service in town’, you mean…” I say. And then I shut up. The client might then go automatically into another cliché, “Well, people love our loyal and dedicated employees and we’re family-owned and operated,” to which I respond, “When you say loyal and dedicated, you mean…” and then the client stops and thinks and says, “If your septic system fails at three o’clock in the morning and your alarm calls our number, the phone will ring in our house. Then, one of us will get up, answer it, get dressed, and drive to your house and fix it.” Voila! That’s the kind of meat I’m looking for in a commercial. That’s something that would make a difference to someone with a septic system.
By opening cans, lots of great secrets are revealed, secrets that clients have been keeping to themselves for years. In some cases, these tasty tidbits of information might identify and solve problems that may be literally keeping consumers awake at night. In talking with a car dealer, he started immediately with the best service cliché. After questioning, he admitted that nearly every week he helped some of his good customers by providing them with free loaner cars while theirs were being worked on and in some cases, went to bat for customers and got the manufacturer to pay for repairs that were not technically covered by warranty. Where were those commercials for all of these years?
It’s quite amazing what can be revealed when the account executive takes the time to ask good questions. I was working with my personal HV/AC guy. He wanted to advertise. He’s one of the most honest people I’ve ever worked with, but as we were discussing his advertising he just brought up the usual clichés. Family owned and operated. His wife and son both work there. All of them are A.S.S. certified. Fast and friendly. Blah, blah, blah. The ad-speak he was giving me was all about him, not about the consumer. And, the honest part just wasn’t coming through. Then suddenly it hit me like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist (thank you, Peter Bergman). I remembered that he knows where the key to our house is. That means we don’t have to wait for him to show up (sometime between8AM and Infinity). I asked him, “Chuck, do you have other customers that tell you where the key is?” and he said, “Yeah, sure.” “How many?”, “Oh, fifty or sixty.” Wow! That’s trust. Other people with air conditioning and heating problems would probably very much appreciate information like that when deciding who to call and fix their system.
Do the right thing and open up some heads yourself. Repeat the cliché and ask the client to explain what he means. Ask tough questions about elephants in the room, those things that should be discussed in commercials but that the client is ignoring. Don’t just settle for “Pink Slime” creative.