Radio ads aren’t exactly easy to make. You’re breaking the flow of a program the audience is engaged in to sell them a product or service. In the worst-case scenario, they’ll consider that a rude move, akin to tapping them on the shoulder. Best case, though, you could make a difference and have them smiling even before your 30 seconds are up. That’s why knowing about the best and worst radio ads can make a huge difference.

“Better you than me” can be uttered when you see someone tumbling down a hill after slipping, sure. It can also apply when you see a competitor’s ad fail spectacularly. It means someone went and spent their marketing dough, paid a creative team, and had it backfire on them. For all we know, having a bad ad out is even worse than languishing in mediocrity; a mediocre ad may be forgettable, but a bad radio ad will make you infamous. It’s memorable and sticks in people’s minds for all of the wrong reasons.

The converse is also true for the best radio ads. They create a persistent positive association for your brand or product — like the movie Inception only, you know, actually possible. You definitely want to go this route, avoid the well-trod paths of mediocrity and ad oblivion.

But how?! If anyone had the perfect recipe for success every time, they’d have bottled it already. But we have the two next best things to set you on the path. One is this guide to writing radio scripts like a pro.

The other is right here! Want knowledge about the best and worst radio ads? There’s nothing like learning through the power of positive and negative examples.
Let’s go!

This post was updated in June 2021

Radio Ads: a quick overview

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the best and worst radio ads, let’s refresh some key concepts!

Radio ads are quick commercial segments that air during broadcasting segments. They usually run about 30 seconds, so they have to be quick and to-the-point. They also have an incredibly high engagement rate; a 2009 report by Coleman found a whopping 92% permanence rate during commercial breaks. That’s because radio itself is a mix of passive and active activities. People tend to leave it on while they do something else; a radio ad then becomes a great opportunity to catch someone’s ear!

Radio ads can be categorized into a wide array of formats owing to the medium’s longevity. Since the first radio infomercial in 1922, a lot has been tried; still, after all this time, radio ads can be thought of as having two broad categories.

Pre-recorded ads

These produced spots are the most common type of radio advert. Without a doubt, they’re the ones that you as a listener will be more familiar with. They entail the now-common pre-recorded segments that play during a break in the show. When talking about the best and worst radio ads, there’s a 99.9% chance you’ve got one of these in mind.

These are where a brand has a make-or-break moment. These spots have been recorded in advance, so they’re scripted and (hopefully) feature professional announcers and voice talent. None of these things ensure a pre-recorded ad’s success, as you’ve probably borne witness to all too many times. They definitely help give brands some peace of mind, though!

Having total creative control gives a brand time to pre-plan accordingly. That means keeping in mind:

  • Their target demographics and market.
  • The piece’s tone.
  • The message they want to convey.
  • An adequate script.
  • Pitch-perfect performances from A-list voice talent.

Having a pre-recorded ad that responds to these metrics accurately will tilt the odds in your favor. It also means that you may find yourself on the good side of the best and worst radio ads. Most don’t ever get there, though, and pass by without notice. Many advertisers are a risk-averse bunch, and try to stick closer to “tried and true” industry tropes. The thing is, you probably also want to avoid being so risk-free that you completely evade anyone’s attention.

Now, there’s one more type of radio ad to consider.


The live read

This is when a radio DJ reads an advertisement on-air. The reading could come from a script, the DJ’s knowledge of the brand or product, or a fact sheet. These advertisements can often come off as ad-libbed, so they are generally not very memorable.

What is positive about them is that they play off the audience’s familiarity with the presenter. Using the existing goodwill accrued by the DJ is a smart play for advertisers. That means people are already getting a voice they like, so the message is passed off as trustworthy.

The cons are that advertisers don’t really have much control over the tone of the reading. Even though hefty sums can be paid for live reads, DJs aren’t always motivated when reading. This could result in a poor, or sub-par reading. Having a DJ sleepwalk through your ad can make you grind your teeth in frustration. Still, most serious DJs will try to give your material a fair read.

It’s worth noticing that this type of ad is increasingly seen as an “old school” thing. Knowing what demographic and timeslot you are catering to is part of the recipe for success.

It’s time to feast your ears on some of the best and worst radio ads!

The bad

We know you like some of the bad news first, so we’re going to give it to you straight. Some adverts are so bad that they stick in the collective consciousness as a mark of shame. There are some that feel like they were read by text-to-speech software. A few were so egregious that even their creators put them out on YouTube as their personal shrine of failure.

But there’s far worse than boring, uninspired, stock or substandard deliveries. After all, radio commercials have a reputation for being rote and stuck in the past already. The way most commercials are styled certainly doesn’t do the medium any favors. Try this holiday giveaway clunker on for size. We’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s what we’ve “always wanted”. It’s not the Back to the Future hoverboard, that’s for sure.

Speaking of things that were big in the 80s, we’ve got a treat for you! This 1986 compilation of the worst radio ads of the year gives you an idea of how long-suffering this industry has been. Or how about this ad that seems like it was made up of just telephone numbers? It’s a generous world indeed!

What not to do

But how about a “winner” from the current season? Voice and radio expert Dan O’ Day cites this example as his worst offender from 2019. This one seems to hit all the marks for what one must not do. From the script to the acting and delivery, it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

This Southern California plumbing service ad tries to start things by telling a story. The only problem is that the flat delivery from the voice actress sounds like your car GPS giving you directions. There’s also the issue of voices being recorded by several actors that came in at different points of the process; it’s not clear whether they even got the complete script.

The result? A disjointed mess without a clear through-line, where it seems like the marketers tried to throw everything at the wall. Let’s list the most notable offenders from this piece:

  • Cliché, almost non-existent storytelling.
  • Flat, monotone delivery that’s all over the place.
  • Actors that sometimes drag, sometimes rush their lines.
  • A script that doesn’t have a clear concept.
  • The sound mixing is all over the place.

This is one of those ads that is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It’s very easy to start writing an ad with the best of intentions. The best way to do it is to just leave it a Pro’s hands next time. We can’t tell you how many companies we’ve seen try to write in-house, even without experience.

You know the phrase about a certain road being paved with good intentions. Don’t let this be you! Leave your script and narrating services to experts!


The good

When a good ad comes along it’s like the first rays of a spring sun. It’s so easy to get stuck in the mediocrity of most radio ads that at some point you just tune out. Then something happens. Maybe you hear a sound that’s immediately evocative, provoking a visceral reaction. Perhaps a playful take on nostalgia snaps you out of the haze.

The main takeaway here is creativity. The best radio ads know how to get creative without going too far. Sometimes, they don’t even work within conventional ad rules but establish solid branding anyway.

Everyone’s heard a variation of the “You’re not you when you’re hungry” Snickers commercial. Marks kept up their winning streak with the 2018 advert “Confessions”. John Paul Hughes, Group Head of Creative, had this to say about it:

“Good casting, performance, and use of the medium by slowing down the music to dramatize and amplify their core message ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’.

Again the ad is about the buyer, not the seller. They present a problem then position their product as the answer. Snickers satisfies your hunger and gets you back to your best. With the added incentive of limited edition bars to persuade you to try one in-store today.

They embrace the emotional and the implied through short, amusing stories of people screwing up. It’s relatable and entertaining. And why is entertainment important? Because nobody wants to hear your advert. NOBODY! So the way to cut through that indifference, make people listen and care about what you have to say is to entertain.”

Words to live by. The mix between empathy and humor is what separates a good advert from the bad.

A classic

A 1980s ad that manages to capture lightning in a bottle is Harry Singh’s Caribbean Restaurant.

Check out this award-winning little ditty:

MAN: Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwman, that’s hot!

ANNCR: Harry Singh’s Caribbean Restaurant. The spiciest food in the Twin Cities.

Now that’s the way to make an impression. The whole ad is done within less than ten seconds, and the listener has received:

  • A sound that takes them out of their reverie.
  • A moment of humor.
  • Information on what sets the product apart.
  • Knowledge about the restaurant’s location.

Remember: humor is a powerful vehicle for delivering your brand’s message. It’s also always a better option to keep your ad short — chances are audiences are going to listen to it repeatedly. Even the funniest ads start wearing out their welcome after the 10th time someone’s listened to it.

Closing thoughts

The list of the best and worst radio ads continues to grow. With the medium of radio in good health, the well isn’t exactly running dry. Even more so, with digital platforms like Spotify and Pandora, the audio ad continues this long-running marketing tradition.

Knowing what separates the best from the worst, though: that’s power. And since you’re now empowered, here’s a wish for you!

We wish you to be on the “best” side of the best and worst radio ads! Here’s hoping you make one for the ages!

Looking for the perfect audio ad? Submit a project with us today and we’ll make your dream ad come true!