Portland Radio: Advertising on Purpose

Ernest_HemmingwayLegend has it that Ernest Hemingway was lunching with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end! This legend may be apocryphal, but none the less, it is a complete story in just 6 words.  In contrast, while listening to Portland Radio, we are all exposed to sixty second commercials for Maine small business that use a luxurious 160 words but say nothing at all.

I have been listening to the radio all morning and have heard more than 30 commercials. It frustrates me to say that very few of these commercials had a point. They were each 150 words that wandered aimlessly for 60-seconds.  As each commercial ended I often had no idea, even, what the business did.  These advertisers all forgot the first rule of creating effective radio commercials: Do it With Purpose.

It Should Fit On  A T-Shirt

Before a commercial is even written, the advertiser should be able to explain what they do for a living in about 10 seconds or in enough words to fit on a t-shirt (no more than 25 words).  This is a lesson learned by Kevin Kassermen, former ower of Dunbar Water in Maine.  According to Kevin, his radio advertising investment didn’t payoff until he realized he wasn’t selling sophisticated water filtration systems and reverse osmosis but rather he was selling “a clean glass of fresh-tasting, non-stinky water.”  Once Kevin realized this and made it the purpose of his advertising, his phone never stopped ringing (and neither did his cash register). 

Good Radio Advertising Happens On Purpose

Clearly, there is truth is the aphorism: “Sell a good night’s sleep – not the mattress.”  This point was not lost on the hospital emergency room whose administrators thought their purpose was to provide emergency health care. As Peter Drucker describes in the book, The 5 Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, “the hospital does not take care of health; the hospital takes care of illness.” The hospital’s fortunes changed when they realized, “the emergency room was there to give assurance to the afflicted.  To the surprise of physicians and the nurses, the [purpose] of a good emergency room was to tell 8-out-of-10 [patients] there was nothing a wrong that a good night’s sleep wouldn’t fix.”

Charles Revson, the founder of cosmetics firm Revlon, built his advertising success on the principal: “In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”

A Hotbed of Great Commercials:  NPR

Although National Public Radio and their affiliate stations do not broadcast commercials, they do produce 10-second underwriting credits for their sponsors (which, are usually 25 words…just enough to fit on a t-shirt). The nucleus of an effective sixty-second radio commercial should be similar to the 10-second NPR credit: full of purpose and precise language.  Here are some examples heard recently on NPR and Maine Public Broadcasting:

  • Cross Jewelers offering more than two thousand ways to show your love.  Upstairs in downtown Portland and on-line at Cross Jewelers dot com
  • CSX, moving one ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of fuel
  • Ally Bank, committed to straightforward banking, including customer service with a real human being 24/7
  • Coffee By Design, a Maine coffee company and artisan micro roastery, with three coffeehouse locations in Downtown Portland and one at the LLBean flagship store in Freeport, coffee by design dot com. 
  • Monsanto, committed to sustainable agriculture creating hybrid and biotech seeds designed to increase crop yields and conserve natural resources. Learn more at ProduceMoreConserveMore.com

Start With 25 Words

The 25 word purpose statement should be the first element produced for a radio commercial. In the words of Kevin Kasserman, sell a clean glass of water…not arsenic removal.  Sell a good night’s sleep…not a mattress.  Sell comfort for the afflicted…not health care. Sell hope…not cosmetics. These 25 words will provide the direction for the remaining 125 words of a commercial.  These 25 words will propel the listener to the destination and ensure the success of an advertiser’s investment.

For more tips for creating effective radio commercials, we suggest the following articles:



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