Under the Influence

Radio Still Makes Waves

This week, we take a trip to five different countries to listen to some astonishing radio advertising. From a theatre company in Switzerland that sponsored the traffic in a whole new way, to a radio campaign that tried to bore you to sleep, to an amazing radio ad that asks you to donate your voice to help other people - all of these amazing campaigns are turning radio on its ear.
This Week's Must-Listen Moment: Radio Still Makes Waves 1:49

This week, we take a trip to five different countries to listen to some astonishing radio advertising. From a theatre company in Switzerland that sponsored the traffic in a whole new way, to a radio campaign that tried to bore you to sleep, to an amazing radio ad that asks you to donate your voice to help other people - all of these amazing campaigns are turning radio on its ear.

Way back in 1981, when I got out of Ryerson, I knew I wanted to be an advertising copywriter.

(image source: ryerson)

It was all I could dream about.

So I sat down, wrote up an interesting resume and cover letter, and sent it off to 60 advertising agencies from coast to coast.

And promptly got back 61 rejection letters.

True story.

One agency rejected me twice.

So one day, on a lark, I dropped off my resume to a small radio station in Burlington, Ontario.

I didn't want to work for a radio station, I really wanted to work for a big advertising agency in Toronto.

But no agency would have me. So I left my resume at the radio station.

To my surprise, they called me back to arrange an interview. On the appointed day, I met the sales manager, he showed me around the station, showed me the production studios, we waved at the DJ who was on the air, and then he introduced me to the Creative Director.

It was all incredibly exciting. They said they would get back to me next week.

And one week later, they called to offer me a copywriting job.

I couldn't believe it. I was an official copywriter.

And on top of that, I would get to learn at the feet of a Creative Director who would show me the ropes.

On my first day, I walked into the Creative Director's office to say hi, and it was empty.

And I mean – really empty.

When I asked where the Creative Director was, I was told the station had let him go to bring me in.

Suddenly, I was the Creative Director. And I knew nothing about writing radio commercials. And I mean nothing.

It was a baptism by fire. The radio station had about one hundred on-going retail clients, and I had to write about a dozen commercials a day. Sometimes more.

And I had to produce those commercials. So I learned how to do it – the hard way. But slowly and surely, I got to understand the medium. I made mistakes, but I learned. And I got used to dealing with clients, and I got the hang of presenting radio scripts.

More than anything, I got to experiment. I got to try different ways of writing scripts, I had to become resourceful when creating sound effects. When I needed a commercial recorded, I would hover around the studio as the morning DJ finished his shift. Then I would ambush him with a handful of scripts.

I could see the look in his eye. I was the only thing standing between him and the golf course. So I learned to be quick and efficient.

But the most amazing thing about my time at that small radio station was this:

I fell in love with radio.

I had no real interest in radio when I walked into that station. It was the only place that would hire me as a copywriter.

Then doesn't it change the whole trajectory of my life.

I eventually made my way to the big leagues, worked for some of the biggest and best advertising agencies in the country, excelled in radio, then co-founded a radio production company in 1990 that grew to have four recording studios in Toronto and another four in New York City.

That little detour to that local radio station had a lasting impact on my life. And here I am talking to you on a national radio network.

And to this day, the medium still fascinates me…

The radio I knew back in 1981 sure has changed.

Today, radio is shape-shifting and morphing into magnificent ideas that would be unrecognisable to a copywriter 30 years ago.

In this episode, we take a trip to five different countries that have created astonishing radio advertising.

None of the ideas are safe, none of them are ordinary.

And all of them are radio waves crashing against the shore of tradition…

Back in my copywriting days, my favourite medium was always radio.

I was almost alone in that love, as most of my fellow ad agency copywriters much preferred print, and especially the glamour of television.

As I've said in the past, many copywriters feel radio doesn't offer the same tools – it doesn't have sets, locations, wardrobe, props, or faces - in other words, it isn't television.

So many writers find it limiting – creatively.

But I've always believed you can do more on radio than any other medium.

There are virtually no budget restrictions like there are in television. Want to create a radio commercial that takes place…

…at the bottom of the ocean – no problem.

But try adding a deep-sea photography line item to a television budget.

Want to take a walk ... inside a heart artery in a radio commercial, no problem.

But try inserting a microscopic camera into a real heart artery, or even creating animation as a substitute in television:

Radio, on the other hand, is only limited by imagination.

And it's why I love it.

Every year, I scour the international advertising award shows to find the best advertising and thinking from around the world.

In particular, I look to the London International Advertising Awards and the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

Even though the Cannes Advertising Festival has been going since 1954, radio wasn’t invited until 2005. I was honoured to be a judge that first year. (image source: havas-se-co.uk)
The London International Awards is one of my favourite award shows, and they treat their judges in a first class way. (image source: seguindoporchek.com)

Both are a kind of World Championship of Creativity in the marketing industry.

I'm particularly interested in the radio categories.

And I'm always amazed at what I find.

For example, one commercial I heard had all the hallmarks of a good radio spot – it was simple, it made one point well, and it made me laugh.

It was for an independent film festival in Portugal, called the IndieLisboa.

This film festival in Portugal has been running for 12 years now. (image source: thinkhotels.com)

The festival began back in 2004, and runs for 11 days each April. It offers the Portuguese public the unique opportunity to see Portuguese and foreign films from all genres that they might not be able to see at typical commercial theatres or on TV networks.

So – how do you advertise a festival that offers an offbeat menu of films?

Well, like this:

Simple, funny, to the point.

While it contains traditional radio commercial structure, it's still amusing and effective.

But radio is getting much more ambitious these days.

And it's not being held back by the usual conventions.

Take a recent radio idea to advertise the Theatre Rigiblick in Zurich, Switzerland.

Theatre Rigiblick increased the traffic to their productions by sponsoring the traffic reports on radio stations - in a most unusual way. (image source: theater-rigiblick.ch)

The theatre offers interesting and eclectic productions ranging from musicals to dance to Shakespeare.

Like all arts organizations, the theatre had a very limited marketing budget.

But it wanted to raise its awareness.

So here's what it did.

The theatre sponsored the weather & traffic reports on Radio 1 in Zurich.

But it didn't just say "This traffic report is brought to you by Theatre Rigiblick."

Instead, the theatre's top actors performed the traffic report. Listen to the ad here.

As I've often said, the element of surprise is like rocket fuel in advertising and marketing.

Having actors perform the traffic & weather reports was just that - and amazing to think Radio 1 in Zurich would even allow it.

But dare to push and the world will always yield.

Over 100,000 listeners were tuned in to those broadcasts every day, so the theatre got massive exposure for very little expenditure.

A completely unexpected use of radio.

And more than anything, it demonstrated – firsthand – that Theatre Rigiblick was one of the boldest and most creative theatres in Switzerland.

In Brazil, Amnesty International chose radio to speak out about an important issue.

(image source: europevartha.com)

In that country, only 40% of the victims of oppression and human rights violations contact authorities – due to fear, shame or ignorance.

So to inspire people to break the silence, Amnesty did exactly that.

There are a lot of tunnels in Brazil. People going to and from work every day go through these tunnels.

For Brazilians, losing radio signals in tunnels is a daily routine of life. (image source: getlighting)

And if you've ever driven in a tunnel, you know that you lose all radio signals as you drive through them.

Until you come out the other end.

So Amnesty and its advertising agency, DDB Brazil, decided to take advantage of tunnels - and broadcast a radio message where there is no signal.

(image source: dm9ddb.com)

To do that, special FM radio transmitters were installed inside the longest passageways.

Remarkably, the top radio stations allowed Amnesty to pirate their frequencies inside the tunnels.

Like Theatre Rigiblick, Amnesty had shown up in an unexpected place.

Everyone expects to lose radio signals in a tunnel. For people driving those tunnels every day, that signal loss is a daily routine.

So imagine their surprise when a radio message suddenly popped up.

And that message was to "break the silence."

Sometimes, the creativity of a message isn't the message itself.

It's where the message is delivered.

As any new parent will tell you, the first couple of years with a baby are tough.

You cried as a baby, so it’s only fair that your baby keeps you up at night. It’s nature’s way of zeroing the board. (image source: wikimedia)

Sleep deprivation is par for the course.

Pampers is the #1 diaper brand in the world.

(image source: amazon.com)

It produces diapers that are specifically designed to be absorbent and comfortable to help babies get an uninterrupted sleep throughout the night.

And when babies sleep all night…

…parents sleep all night.

So Pampers asked its advertising agency in the Philippines to communicate that benefit to parents.

As the ad agency thought about the task, they had an idea: Why just talk about the benefit of uninterrupted sleep, when you could actually demonstrate it?

They chose white noise as their tool.

Many studies around the world have shown that white noise has a sleep-inducing effect on babies. Probably because it mimics the womb sound babies are used to.

It also filters out and masks distracting noises.

As a result, people often buy white noise machines to help babies sleep. Unfortunately, those machines cost over $100, and are too expensive for the average Filipino parent who earns just $10 per day.

That's when the ad agency hit on a way to provide white noise to parents for free.

90% of Filipino households own a radio.

So the agency turned those radios into white noise machines.

First, they found a radio frequency that no one owned.

When you tuned to that frequency, you heard nothing but static.

And what is static – but white noise.

They branded that channel "Pampers ZZZ 91.1 FM."

Pampers helped parents put their babies to sleep by broadcasting... nothing. (image source: pampers)

It broadcast white noise 24/7, helping to put babies to sleep at night.

Pampers promoted the station though radio and TV commercials, posters, bumper stickers and social media. Sure enough, parents got their babies listening, the bambinos drifted off to sleep, and happy parents shared the news online with other parents.

(image source: pampers)

ZZZ 91.1.FM was so successful, mentions of Pampers on Facebook soared 2011% during the campaign period.

Even doctors commented on the success:

It was one of those remarkable successes, where Pampers awareness rose substantially, sales rose as a result, and all because Pampers transformed over 25 million radios into free white noise machines… simply by airing nothing.

But Pampers wasn't the only brand that wanted to put you to sleep…

In 2014, a product called ZzzQuil was launched.

Zzzquil chose a hilarious way to launch into the marketplace. (image source: Nyquil)

It's an over-the-counter night time sleep aid, for the relief of occasional insomnia.

ZzzQuil came up with an interesting idea for its launch campaign. One element of that included a helpline.

But it was a highly unusual helpline. ZzzQuil ran a radio commercial promoting the toll-free number. You can listen to the ad here.

(image source: twitter)

It was a fun and novel idea that firmly positioned ZzzQuil as a new and interesting sleep aid.

And get this: Within only four months, ZzzQuil captured the #1 position in the sleep aid category over leader Advil PM.

Zzzquil chose to bore people to sleep. (image source: nyquil)

It is so unusual for a product launch to overtake the established leader in a category.

But ZzzQuil became the most talked-about sleep aid on social media, it not only stole business from Advil PM, but it attracted new customers to the category, and it generated $123 million in sales, far exceeding its first year goals.

Proving yet again that creativity is a powerful business tool.

As I've mentioned many times before, the element of surprise is one of the most powerful tools in marketing.

It creates impact.

Surprise is the vital element of any good story.

As marketer John Steele says, in surprise lies the energy to change a mind, convince, inspire, recruit or persuade.

In other words, surprise is a catalyst for action.

Which is why this radio commercial had such an impact on me.

As the commercial mentioned, people who have lost their ability to speak because of a neurological condition only have a limited number of computer-generated voices to choose from.

Here is the real Stephen Hawking speaking:

Did you know Stephen Hawking is British?

You wouldn't from his computerized speech.

Millions of people in North America cannot speak, and use generic computerized voices.

Think for a moment how much of our personality is wrapped up in our voices. The sound of your voice is a powerful and fundamental aspect of who you are. It is as unique as a fingerprint.

That's why you can call up a friend, and just say "Hi" and they know it's you immediately.

So speech scientist Dr. Rupal Patel founded a company called VocaliD.

The amazing Dr. Rupal Patel giving her TED talk about VocalId. (image source: ted)

Her company builds personalized voices for people who use computerized speech devices.

VocalId is a company that creates personalized voices for people who have lost the ability to speak. (image source: vocalid)

As Dr. Patel described at a recent TED Talk, she was inspired to create VocaliD after watching this unfold in front of her at a conference:

VocaliD asks for people to donate their voices. It's similar to giving a blood donation, except all you have to do is record a few hours of your voice reading various words and phrases. Then your voice is put into a voice bank.

Next, Dr. Patel records sounds her patients can make. Even if her patients have conditions like Cerebral Palsy, and can only make vowel-like sounds.

But even that sound is unique to that person, and in that sound is his or her unique vocal identity.

Once the sound is captured, Dr. Patel's unique computer system searches that sound against all the voices in her voice bank for the closest match, and when one is found, she begins to reverse-engineer a customized voice and complete vocabulary for her patient.

Now a nine-year old boy doesn't have to sound like this:

Instead, he can sound like a nine-year old boy.

And more importantly, he can sound like himself.

The point of all marketing is to communicate a message.

But it's not enough for people hear and merely understand your message, the true test of a commercial is to get somebody to act on the message.

To achieve that, you need to infuse messages with emotion, and you need to surprise listeners to create impact.

The VocaliD commercial did both for me.

And I'm going to look into donating my voice.

I spoke to a marketing class recently.

I told them there has never been a more exciting time to be entering the world of advertising.

For most of my career, there was a limited palate. Print, television, radio, outdoor posters and transit advertising were the mediums.

But now the possibilities are so much greater, and the thinking is so much freer.

Not only has the Internet changed everything by opening up so many more channels, but even the thinking within existing channels is fascinating.

And radio is no exception.

We've all heard businesses sponsoring the weather & traffic reports on radio for years. But then Theatre Rigiblick turned that age-old sponsorship on its ear.

Since radio began in the 1920s, the one place signals could never reach was inside tunnels. And that's why the Amnesty tunnel message created so much impact. It showed up in a silent place to say, "Break the silence."

That kind of thinking is so inspiring. When Zzzquil wanted to get attention when it was launching, it hit on the idea of a toll-free helpline, where it tried to bore you to sleep.

So funny, so unexpected, and so relevant to the sleep-aid category.

Pampers helped parents lull their babies to sleep by airing nothing on a radio frequency.

Then there's the VocaliD radio commercial. It surprised me, intrigued me enough to track down more information, then achieved the ultimate ask.

It inspired me to donate my voice.

Such amazing ideas. Using nothing more than sound and the imagination.

All of which proves one thing - radio is still making waves…

…when you're under the influence.