Radio commercials were the staple of audio advertising throughout the 20th century. Today, they continue to be a crucial weapon in any enterprise’s promotion arsenal. In this article, we take a look at how to craft them, focusing on their main building block: radio commercial scripts.
This post has been updated in August 2021.
What is a Radio Commercial?
Radio commercials are ads that appear on radio, promoting products, services and brands. They have a long history, going as far back as 1893.
They are not quite the same thing as jingles; although all jingles were once radio commercials, not all radio commercials were –or indeed are– jingles. They also have important differences with audio ads.
Jingles are a preponderant chapter in the history of radio commercials. A jingle is essentially a short song used in advertising on the radio. The jingle promotes a brand and product through a catchy tune and the use of hooks and slogans.
One particularly successful example of this type of advertisement was the first ‘Wheaties’ jingle:
“Have you tried Wheaties?
They’re whole wheat with all of the bran.
Won’t you try Wheaties?
For wheat is the best food of man.
They’re crispy and crunchy
The whole year through,
The kiddies never tire of them
And neither will you.
So just try Wheaties,
The best breakfast food in the land.”
General Mills, the manufacturer of Wheaties was extremely concerned about the poor sales of this product. In 1929, the company released the jingle, “Have you tried Wheaties?” which initially aired in Minnesota, substantially increasing sales. The strategy became nationwide and ‘Wheaties’ established itself throughout the United States.
The jingle highlighted the importance of their use. Soon, other companies started to imitate this and jingles became widespread on the radio and this type of ad took off. By the 1950’s jingles had become central to radio advertising.
Lately though, the use of the jingle has somewhat declined. ‘The Atlantic’ stated in 2016: “The jingle has become a relic of the mid-20th-century commercials it once dominated. Today’s pop songs and yesterday’s classics have effectively replaced the jingle.” Famous jingle composer Steve Karmen recently said: “Unfortunately, jingle is an unacceptable word today. Jingle implies old, stodgy. Jingle implies not with it.”
Audio Ad Scripts vs. Radio Commercial Scripts
Radio commercials appear, as the name implies, on the radio. Audio ads, on the other hand, are a form of audio advertising too but they run across a wider range of platforms. They also have a specificity to them; by using algorithmic approaches they are able to pinpoint very specific demographics.
A simple way to decide between creating an audio ad and a radio commercial is to choose between a general approach and a specific one. If the product to be advertised is general, the traditional route of radio ads is advisable. Imagine an ad for a large chain of supermarkets playing on the radio. If the product is more specific and geared for a specific demographic, the best route is audio ads. Imagine a musician with a new album geared at zoomers, with a targeted audio ad on Spotify.
The Principles Behind Great Radio Commercial Scripts
There are different principles to remember when crafting radio commercial scripts:
1. Making It Original:
The first consideration when writing successful radio commercial scripts is emphasizing originality. Nowadays people have heard it all and can be quite scathing in how they consume and judge radio content. The very first step is therefore having a premise which is striking and different.
2. Knowledge of the Target Audience:
Understanding who the radio commercial scripts are for is vital. Who is buying the product? What type of people are they? Which kind of ad could appeal to them and which kind might definitely not spark interest?
3. Great Copy:
It seems evident that radio commercial scripts need to be well written, but it is worth repeating. Good copy, written by experienced advertisers/copywriters is the backbone of radio commercial scripts and later, of finished radio commercial ads.
4. Execution and Production Value:
It is important that, once a script is done, it is unencumbered by poor execution and poor production values. These are killers of creativity; radio commercial scripts which worked on paper and were a phenomenal script may very well flop for lack of quality execution.
The Nuts and Bolts of Radio Commercial Scripts
A script is quite simply the blueprint of content, in this case, of a radio commercial. There are many ways to write scripts and more specifically, radio commercial scripts.
1. Live / Pre-Recorded:
Radio commercials may take place live or be traditionally pre-recorded works.
In a live radio commercial, a radio announcer or DJ reads out an ad, usually in the form of an announcement for a product or service. An example of such an ad could go something like this sample by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the United States:
“We all have the power to increase the prevention of substance use and promotion of mental health in [INSERT COMMUNITY]—whether by supporting someone who’s going through a difficult time, or instilling healthy habits in our children from an early age. Join others in [INSERT COMMUNITY] by making each day count during National Prevention Week 2017, May 14th to the 20th. Visit [RADIO STATION NAME]’s website at [WEBSITE ADDRESS] to learn more. Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and [INSERT ORGANIZATION].”
A pre-recorded radio commercial, on the other hand, is a more traditional ad. It has undergone recording, editing, sound mixing etc. Radio commercial scripts in this case are usually a bit ‘tighter’, more produced and they usually rise or fall depending on how great the copywriting is. This NHS ad is a good example:
“We are here every day and every night of every year.
[Sound of ambulance siren/ hospital bed going through doors/footsteps down corridor.]
From new-born to old age.
[Sound of baby crying/scanner/beep of monitor/heartbeat/oxygen tank.]
We never panic.
[Phone ring tone/NHS employee answers: “How can I help?”]
We take a pulse, agree a plan, make a cuppa.
[Beep of heart monitor/talking/cup of tea being made.]
We’re doing our rounds… making our visits.
[Ring of a door bell/door opening/voice saying “Hiya”.]
We are Michelle, Adan, Alfie, Frankie, Yvonne. And at 3.49 this morning we were Maisie, too.
[A newborn baby’s cry.]
We are the NHS.
[Nurse leaves for the night saying “Night, love” to colleagues.]
We are recruiting now. Search “nursing careers”.
2. Short & Sweet:
Radio commercial scripts are usually short, although live-reads will usually be longer. Usually, a typical radio commercial will not go longer than 1 minute. Most of them are even shorter than that, clocking in at around 5 to 30 seconds.
3. Call to Action:
Most radio commercial scripts end with a call to action. This is the last section of the ad, where the announcer essentially tells the listener what to do. In the case of the previous NHS ad, for instance, the call to action is directed at potential nurses: “We are recruiting now. Search “nursing careers”.
4. Adding in Audio Elements:
Radio commercial scripts usually write down all audio elements that will be added to the finished audio. Note the previous NHS example, which puts in things like “[Beep of heart monitor/talking/cup of tea being made.]”
The greatest advantage that a pre-recorded radio ad has over a live-read radio ad is obviously the range of audio effects and sounds that can be added.
Different Strokes for Different Folks: Styles and Announcers
There are different ways to style a radio commercial script. It is important to have clear expectations for the finished product, before giving the go-ahead on a script. These are some possibilities worth keeping in mind:
- Straight Announcer: This is a relatively typical commercial. It is a single, strong voice reading the entire script. This is used in live-reads, but there are pre-recorded ads which also have this style, although it may sound a little bit dated to the most discerning audiences.
- Two Announcers: For more complex radio commercials, two voices may be necessary. Radio commercial scripts with more than one speaker are able to play each character off the other, in several ways: conversations about the product, banter of one with the other etc.
- Slice of Life: The key here is to present a problem and then offer a solution. Such a problem-and-solution technique can follow a simple scheme: setup problem, interaction, solution.
- Customer Interview: This is a well-known radio commercial. It breaks down the defenses of a skeptic listener, by asking questions, leading to the product or service. This ad goes something like this:
“Announcer: Tired of headaches?
Customer: Yes, very much.
Announcer: Impatient with the pills on the market?
Customer: Yes, they never seem to work.
Announcer: Want a natural alternative? Well, I don’t know (…)” (etc, etc).
- Writing a Story: Stories are always great for a radio ad. This could be structured as a fictional narrative which includes a place, some characters, and a conflict and solution.
Troubleshooting Radio Commercial Scripts
Occasionally, a radio ad does not work as expected. There are some pitfalls and problems to avoid. Two situations in particular seem to seriously hamper radio commercial scripts:
- Extreme technicality which entangles the message and confuses the listener. Radio ads are more about making the potential customer feel, rather than think. Audiences are seldom able to concentrate on very techy ads on radio.
- Too many messages and no call to action are a sure way to render a radio commercial ineffective. Going straight to the point is best.
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The Gist of It
Radio commercial scripts are the backbone of effective radio ads. Originality, knowledge of the target audience, excellent writing and production values are essential to executing them correctly.
Radio ads may be live or pre-recorded. In any case, short and direct scripts usually work well as too much jargon and messages may confuse a listener.