Making Bad Ads Extinct

Mark Ramsey is a thought leader in the radio journalism space.  I was impressed by an article he posted today called What’s Wrong with Radio Advertising?

Ramsey posits the problem as ” everybody in the message pipeline – from advertiser to broadcaster to listener – views them as negatives”. He’s right. Most of the time they are a negative interruption to the content, and radio operators are solely to blame.

I know many fine, reputable, honest salespeople in this medium. In my old career  I worked side by side with them on projects and concepts that delivered value to the sponsor, underwrote programming worthy of being heard, and brought clean revenue to the bottom line.

Radio is driving away listeners by the truckload every time a commercial break occurs. The way radio managers demand their product to be sold force otherwise good salespeople to load the bullets into the gun that will eventually kill them.

I once commented to a snarky colleague our employer at the time, a bloated radio mega corporation, had the fiduciary morality of a skid row crack whore- they haven’t heard an ad they won’t accept. Nothing seems to be off-limits. This company will get on their knees for anybody who steps up to the glory hole. The commercial has a screaming idiot shoving a new car down your throat? Take the money. The commercial has a jingle that insults every fiber of the listener’s being? Take the money. The commercial copy encourages listeners to cheat on their spouses and destroy their relationships (a certain company who brags they are the “most recognized name in infidelity”)? Take the money. A talk station running infomercials for colon blow and innumberable investment scams? Take the money.

When there are no standards of quality in what goes on the air and the stream, there is no quality at all.

The commercials heard on terrestrial radio are about as close to abysmal as one can imagine. Down-market, lowest-common-denominator, cliche-ridden spots that disengage and insult the listener, and drive people from the station. If I hear one more testimonial from a guy who says “Try Dr. Schmo and get the best lasik treatment in town! You’ll be glad you did!” my head is going to explode.  Little thought is given to the copy and to the campaign for smaller (direct) advertisers. It’s just so much wallpaper. They do indeed get the money today, but the relationship with the listener and the customer is already burned.

What’s made it worse? Claims of “commercial free” hours and segments. They aren’t- ever. The stations interrupt the flow of songs with little things they call “sweepers”, a one-to-five second station ID. Listeners (and I) call those things commercials. So the claim is not credible. Commercial free means nothing but music…nothing.

The commercial free claim only magnifies the problem. Mark Ramsey mentions in his article that radio stations and some streamers basically say “we know you hate ads so much you will pay us to avoid them, thus we will define our premium tier(online) or our radio station (all the time) by what it subtracts rather than what it adds.

Advertising is changing. Video and mobile ad growth will soar in the future. Paid search will see solid growth; but the absolute best the radio business will be able to do is 3-4% growth in the next five years. Promoting a brand has also gone social- and you don’t need radio to do it. Ask Converse All Star, Nutella,  Oreo cookies and countless other products; they have yielded massive success for these brands by utilizing social media and its inherent power of sharing.

Radio commands a powerful niche in the brand awareness universe- reach. Radio is heard (not necessarily listened to actively, but heard) by practically everyone in America every day. But so much radio ad content remains “broadcast” all over the map- it’s terrible, and not a match for the content the station broadcasts/streams.

Let’s not even talk about digital. This industry is a solid decade behind almost every other medium in the world.

The pressure to monetize radio has not changed much over the decades. The same conversations content managers had with the sellers in the 1960’s are still being had in the hallways of radio buildings today. Budgets need to be met, and whatever gets it done, gets it done. The present radio dilemma-crushing debt burden, combined with audience flight to personalized digital platforms, has made the bean-counters even more willing to burn the furniture to keep their house warm. Innovation would seem like a default position; oddly it isn’t.

Early last year I devised a scheme that would fill unsold commercial inventory on my radio station with community public service messaging. The charities would pay a miniscule tariff per month, in exchange for as many messages as we could air during that month. The  spots would have been hand-crafted for my stations demographic and psychographics and even firmographics, relaying targeted information and infotainment content to my listeners and digital visitors. Instead of filling unsold time with more no-charge direct-response and  remnant ads (think “make a million on the internet” ads), my proposal would utilize the space temporarily not being monetized with messaging that sounds like the rest of the station! I had 20 community groups lined up, checkbooks open, ready to play.

I was literally laughed out of the conference room.

What I begged management to do was to consider that a commercial doesn’t have to be a negative. It can inform, it can blend in with the content, it can inspire action (and purchases). Radio managers need to have to have a 30,000 foot view of the brand, online and on the air, that demands consistency and harmony of sound, and words, and messages. It was a scheme, yes- but it was an effort to go beyond in-the-box thinking about “stationality”.

Mark Ramsey suggests weaving… “real value into ‘advertising’ such that both advertisers and audiences can be happier with it than without it?”

This is a mantra that has been repeated time and time again over the past 60 years. And for 60 years, it continues to be flat-out dismissed as “unrealistic”. Radio is headed for more cutbacks, more contraction and more trouble, because the industry continues to deny this fundamental assertion about monetization- everyone likes good ads. Everyone hates stupid ones. You have to program the entire radio station to be successful.

The industry better get it together- Word on the street is Apple and Google are building the world’s biggest media stations, sans screaming car dealer ads.

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