The Tuesday Rant: Why Do Most Radio Ads Suck a Big Bag of Dicks?

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Volume 3 In a Series By Felix

As a student, I would soak up good advertising like a dry sponge. From the One Show annuals, to the D&AD and Communication Arts books, I loved it all. That’s right, ALL. I even loved that ugly, red-headed, limping, alien of a step-child with bad halitosis that we call radio. Being a hopeful copywriter, this was one of those areas that I truly loved because it couldn’t be solved with design. It couldn’t get a wallpaper treatment or a snazzy photo. Nope, this one required good salesmanship and persuasive language. And of course, a decent idea to carry that message.

One of my all-time favorites is this gem written by copywriting great Tim Delaney, of Leagas Delaney fame, in 1984. Entitled “Firips” it’s probably one you’ve already heard, or at least heard of. It’s considered by many people way smarter than myself to be one of the best radio ads of all time. It helps if you know the comic duo of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, their timing is impeccable:


SFX: Sound of a shop bell rings, a cocky East-End jack-the-lad type walks in and is faced by a patronizing shop assistant.

“Morning squire.”

“Morning sire.”

“I’d like a videocaster please.”

“A video recorder. Any one in particular?”

“Well I’d like it to have some specifications.”


“And functions. I must have some functions.”

“I see, did you have any model in mind?”

“Well, a friend mentioned the Hari-kiri, kibuki, kissuni, erka-watchamacallit, you know the Japanese one, the 2000, cos I’m very technically minded, you see.”

“I can see that, sir.”

“So I want one with all the bits on it, all the Japanese bits, you know the 2000.”

“What system?”

“Er, well, er, electrical I think because I’d like to be able to plug it into the television you see. I’ve got a Japanese television.”

“Have you?”

“Yeah I thought you’d be impressed, yeah, the 2000, the Hokie Kokie 2000.”

“Well sir, there is this model.”

“Yeah, that looks smart, yeah.”

“8 hours per cassette, all the functions that the others have.”

“Good, yeah, good.”

“And I know this’ll be of interest: a lot of scientific research has gone into making it easy to operate.”

“Good, mmm, good yeah.”

“Even by a complete idiot like you.”

“Yeah … pardon?”

“It’s a Philips.”

“Doesn’t sound very Japanese.”

“Nah, a Firips. I mean a Firips, it’s a Firips.”

“Yeah, er, well it is a 2000 is it?”

“Oh in fact it’s the 2022, mmm.”

“Mmm, no, nah, nope, it hasn’t got enough nobs on it, no. What’s that one over there?”

_“That’s a washing machine.”

“Yeah, what sort, a Japanese? “

V/O: The VR2022. A video you can understand.

This is great radio. Good comedy (I still think it’s funny some 24 years later), seamless integration of product and brand without being pushy, and most important, it worked. Brand recognition for Philips increased 24% because of that sharp piece of writing.

Other classics that I urge you to pour into your ear are Apple Tango: Lost Property and any Hamlet Cigar radio ad from the 80s and early 90s. Sorry, they’re all British, but what the English lack in oral hygiene they more than make up for in radio ad writing. Check out the Aerials Foundation Hall Of Fame right here:

So, where is this going? Well, as the title clearly indicates, those gems of radio are disappearing faster than your hard-earned cash in a gas pump. I seriously cannot remember the last time I heard a good radio ad. Or even an average one. Or just a plain old dull one. They all suck more dicks than a $10 crack whore.

I’m not sure what happened to the need for imagination in this medium, but it’s certainly in short supply. Here are the common factors in today’s radio ads:

1: Cram as much crap into 30 seconds as possible
2: Include a phone number and repeat it at least 4 times
3: Assume the listener has the IQ of a houseplant
4: Forget about any inclusion of a creative idea, it’s a waste of time

Here’s a quick rundown of your typical crappy radio ad that plays every 20 minutes to annoy the living shit out of you.

“Hey John, you look down. What’s up?”

“Oh Jane, it’s this insurance bill. There’s no way I can afford it.”

“Well have you tried Asswipe Insurance?”

“Asswipe insurance? What’s that?!”

“I have it. I just called them on 1-800-ASSWIPE and they saved me 30%!”

“30%! Wow, let me grab a pen and write down that number. What was it?”



“Yes, 1-800-ASSWIPE.”

“Thanks Jane, I’m calling them right now.”

VO: (reads 4000 words of legal crap in 5 seconds)

You get the idea. Well, there isn’t one, it’s as creative as Donald Trump’s hairstyle and just as dated. If TV and print advertising sucked this bad, there wouldn’t be TV shows or magazines.

It’s ironic that in a world where print ads are now at a point where they say nothing and simply show a clever visual, radio has gone in the opposite direction. They say everything, and yet there’s nothing remotely clever or crafted about them. Maybe the lack of copy in print and TV is having a knock-on effect. The ability to craft truly compelling, creative copy is a dying art. Or, listening to my radio this morning, a dead art. From regular radio to XM, not one ad stood out. Shameful.

One of my first CDs told me that radio was great because your effects budget was limitless. In radio, you create the scene in the listener’s head. And Hollywood, with all of its 3D animation magic and ILM wizardry, cannot compete with the images you can create in your own melon. Some of my favorite TV shows started out on radio. I pay money to listen to comedy on XM, and I’m not alone. It’s not as if radio itself is dead. No, it’s just the advertising. And what makes this even more gut-wrenchingly annoying is that on commercial radio you are bombarded with these awful ads for roughly 20 minutes out of every hour. That’s considered torture in some countries.

I can already hear some creatives screaming that this is all the client’s fault. Nice fallback. But if we can persuade our clients to pay for a print ad that is basically creative masturbation, why can’t we persuade them to rethink radio and do something that stands out. Believe me, it would not be difficult to create a standout radio ad these days. That would be a big fish in a very, very small pond.

So, here’s the assignment, Denver. Can we come up with something fantastic for radio? The next time one of you gets a brief with radio included, don’t just trot out the usual crap and dismiss it as the lost cause you know radio to be. Remember, you have a captive audience and the ability to hit a message home in a way that’s unique to the medium. I’ve heard great radio. I’ve read stellar scripts.

Surely someone out there can do it. Or am I just clinging onto this dream of good radio in the same way a 6-year-old clings to his old blankie, knowing all too well that it’s shortly destined for the trash? We shall see.


The problem is, any cheap douchebag can afford to buy radio. And most cheap douchebags are so cheap, they won’t cough it up to get an agency, producer or good recording studio involved. Hence, the downward spiral of turds.

Because most of the ads on radio don’t sell anything interesting. Seriously. The attention span of someone listening to radio also is difficult to garner their undivided attention, I haven’t listened to the radio in a few years as I hate the repetitiveness of the playlists (which they actually have no control over as they have set playlists they are required to play) and the ads. I don’t sit in my traffic flying down the street at fifty-miles per hour to listen to someone talking about applying Vagisil.

ComArts advertising annual from last year had some awesome radio ads that are not only hilarious, but someone really use the concept of being audio-only with no visuals to make a point.

It’s harder to grab someone’s ear than someone’s eye, it takes a damn good concept and a great copywriter to have near the effect of a clever print ad.

what a spot-on rant. radio has always been my favorite thing to write, and over the years i’ve been lucky enough to pull in quite a few awards for it. unfortunately, most of the clients at my previous agency fell in love with traffic sponsorships, and the opportunity to do any radio, let alone great radio, became rarer than pubic hair at the playboy mansion.

i mostly listen to sirius radio now, and most of the stations are commercial-free. but the commercials that do get played are every bit as bad as what you hear on regular radio. if you’re going to put a commercial on radio that people are paying to listen to, you damn well better make it worth the listeners’ time. few things are more irritating than paying to listen to crap radio spots.

Nice pubic hair analogy Larry! I was surprised by XM and Sirius, for some reason I thought that paying for radio meant not having to listen to crap radio ads. And yet, they’re all over it.

Does anyone know if ads on pay radio can go further than on regular commercial radio? Seems like a backdoor into some funky, no-holds-barred advertising.

The problem with radio is it still relies on clients to get it. And without pretty pictures the odds that client will get it go down precipitously. Not to mention a lot of writers just lack the chops.

The last good radio I remember hearing was about a dozen years ago. The old Sixty Second Movie ads by Hollywood Video. Those were classic.

First I have to say, I love reading designers commenting on radio. Please continue. It made my day.

Here’s my 2 cents:
Radio sucks because agencies allow it to be treated as a throw away. They don’t teach clients there is value to good radio. They funnel money that should go to radio to sexier projects by allowing clients to accept the radio stations’ offer of free spot writing and production with their radio buy. It’s not TV, so they want it done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Most of all, radio sucks because it’s an easy medium to do shitty and a tough medium to do well. It’s raw, naked storytelling. There is nowhere to hide. Pretty photography or a swirly typeface to distract the listener. Every little piece that isn’t perfect sticks out like a sore thumb.

And, Felix, it’s really easy to take the broad sweeping jab at radio to say it sucks just to publish a so called rant. Weak ass shit. Originality factor ZILCH. What’s next, “Why don’t designers read my copy instead of just treating it like one big design element?” congratulations on creating a long copy ad out of something that needed to be nothing more than a headline. At least you did it on the web, so you killed fewer trees.

60 seconds is a lot of time to fill. It’s hard.

Maybe the hardest of all mediums. 60 seconds is a long time to fill.

“...something that needed to be nothing more than a headline…”
That’s the reason print ads suck. On most occasions, ads do need more than a headline. They need some copy, and it doesn’t have to be a book, but enough to inform the reader about the product or service being SOLD. Remember that, this is advertising, not art school. Too many Art Directors and Designers think that way, which is why we are inundated with pretty ads that don’t make any kind of argument as to why to buy the product. I can see why you kept your name hidden, Mr. Pantone.

Must mention Disclaimer Guy;

most radio sucks the same way most print sucks..
most print sucks because….

the age old question

maybe we’ve lost our way.. we’ve become lazy and don’t look at each medium to it’s fullest extent. bad clients. bad briefs. bad writers.. failure to truly embrace the medium for it’s charm and beauty. to close your eyes and imagine a story without pictures or better yet.. flash.. like reading, we’ve given-up for instant gratification.

we must embrace the theatre of the mind again.. close your eyes.. tell a story with nothing more than words. great stories are told over and over. great stories are remembered and shared. we’re all storytellers.. we tell stories every morning after that crazy night out.. after that vacation.. after so many things.. it’s what we do so naturally.. so start telling them in our scripts. And don’t try so hard.. after all, a radio spot is just a story. it’s up to you to make it great.

Amen to that Randall.

Very insightful, Mr. Whittier. I have written my fair share of crappy radio, and what I’ve found is that every script I’ve ever written is a :42.
Do you add 18 seconds of fluffy fun? Or cut 12 seconds?
And there lies the problem with radio. In print, there’s white space. A simple headline or wonderful visual or both. WIth interactive, if you have a 42 second idea, you have a 42 second execution. With television, you can have a visual hold your attention for 27 of the 30 seconds. Then a snappy line and you’re out,
But in radio, you have to fill the time. And that leads to repeating the 800 number, Or you’ve filled the time and you need to have some guy run the disclaimer dash.
Then to top it all off, radio is the absolute worst thing to show in your book. People never know where to look when you play your wonderful radio. Do you look at the CD player or out the window or right at the writer? It’s uncomfortable to show.
In the annuals, it just sits there as acres of words in a book with cool pictures and television story boards. I’m a writer and I haven’t read most of the scripts in CA. They’re just boring.
So why does radio suck? Because it is the hardest of disciplines with the lowest return.

Not trying to be an asshole, but I don’t think that radio being difficult is a good enough excuse for doing a bad job of it. Truly good print or TV is also hard to do, but it’s easier to disguise it with execution. I wonder how many ad folks look at the impact of their ads these days. Is response a dirty word? OR is it all about getting something snazzy in a book, or winning an award?

radio is difficult, which is why i like it so much. unfortunately, most writers at the agencies where i’ve worked don’t, so it gets passed down the line to the juniors. one of the first spots i did was one that was supposedly “beneath” the sr writer at the time, so it got dumped on me. to this day, it’s still one of the best spots i’ve produced. and it helped me get my first promotion.

it’s also difficult to present. you can’t comp it up or do a nice storyboard. it’s just you, reading a script to the client. it’s even harder when you have more than one speaking part. that’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of creatives don’t think it’s worth it, because there aren’t a lot of awards in it. not a lot of travel, either. that’s too bad, because the ones who do pass on their radio assignments really don’t know what they’re missing.

“Some of my favorite TV shows started out on radio”

Really? What are you, 90 years old? Couldn’t get enough of those Green Hornet serials, eh? Now that was one hell of a program. It was the golden age of entertainment, before those talkie pictures came around with their loose morals and their hula hoops. :)

It’s true that radio does provide a captive audience and there is a lot of room for improvement. However. I think it’s important to remember that a lot of the time, the ad’s are low brow because the audience (or the show) is low brow. I don’t want to stereotype, but it’s hard to imagine the fan base of “Bubba The Love Sponge” responding any better to creative new ad’s than the traditional pithy, repetitive bullshit ads out there now. Just sayin’.

Bigger question – who listens to the radio any more?

Tom Van Ness once nailed a radio spot for SoundTrak.

“Boom Wicky” was the title. Mmmmm.

Shicky shaw shaw.

Bad writers, bad briefs, bad clients, yada, yada. You know what I didn’t see mentioned as a huge source of the problem? The absurdly cheap, cut-rate cost of having a radio station write and produce an ad. That’s most likely how we end up getting tortured by shitty ads like the insurance one above. And it’s often why clients expect so little of the medium. Look what they have to compare our work against.

There still are some shining examples of solid radio. I opened my bank account at Compass because of a radio ad that I heard once. It was the idea that got me: free ATMs anywhere. It wasn’t some tractor pull announcer, explosion SFX, or an oft repeated phone number.

It’s up to us to convince clients that solid, original ideas are worth the cost.

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