Agency: Devito/Verdi, New York
Star Rating: 3.5
DEAR BOB: Thanks for your heroic achievements in the field of advertising criticism. You, sir, are a god. But why don't you ever review radio ads in your column? Also, please get rid of that stupid caricature. It doesn't even look like you. -- A Non-existent Reader
Dear "Non": Excellent question. It's a shame you are only a cheap device for generating a lead paragraph. But to reply, there are two reasons Ad Review never writes about radio commercials. First, they don't have pictures, so we have nothing much to put in that gigantic space between the caricature and the column text.
Secondly -- and this is a big factor -- radio advertising SUCKS. Across the board. It is terrible, terrible, terrible, almost uniformly squandering the impact of the most visual medium by forsaking the astonishing power of sound.
They don't have pictures, but they have the unique ability to create pictures in the venerable, priceless theater of the mind. But what do we hear instead? Funny little comic monologues. Funny little comic dialogues. Jingles and rock anthems. That's it. That's national radio advertising in its entirety. It never changes, and we here at Ad Review refuse to write the same negative column again and again.
But every so often comes a campaign that seems to understand the medium and exploit its values. One such is the work from Devito/Verdi, New York, for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
It's a series of four, well, funny little monologues. But what distinguishes these spots is that they instantly conjure in the listener's mind a specific, vivid set of images friendly to the advertiser. And the very format -- which happens to mimic a track announcer calling a race -- demands attention to every word from the very first sound effect, which happens to be a starting bell and the opening of a starting gate:
"And they're off! Out of the gate is DINNER DATE. DINNER DATE starts strong. But here comes NO RESERVATION, followed by HOURS OF WAITING. Now IDLE CHITCHAT is making a move. But IDLE CHITCHAT is no match for AWKWARD SILENCE. It's IDLE CHITCHAT. It's AWKWARD SILENCE. And here comes TABLE BY THE KITCHEN and SNOOTY WAITER followed by UNDERCOOKED CHICKEN. I don't believe it! Out of nowhere comes DECLINED CREDIT CARD and UTTER HUMILIATION. As they come down the stretch, FIRST BASE is nowhere in sight. And finally it's PECK ON THE CHEEK and LET'S JUST BE FRIENDS."
Then the voice-over offering an entertainment alternative: "For a better time, go to the track."
Hey, convinces me. But before it convinces me, it grabs me and holds me down, because the juxtaposition of familiar imagery and an out-of-context narrative are irresistible. Also instantaneous, because the stylized delivery sells the joke from the very first syllable -- an effect impossible in any other medium.
Power of sound
Such is the power of sound to trigger an image. That's why a beer pour on the radio sounds more delicious than a beer pour on TV. The audience is not limited to the image captured on film; it's free to recall and create and idealize its own. But advertising doesn't seem to grasp the unparalleled acuity of the mind's eye.
The disgraceful consequence is imageless advertising. Put another way: the blind selling to the blind.