How Do You Read Commercials? (Part 1)


NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part article. Click for Part Two!

About Randall Rensch: Randy once aspired to be a personality DJ ... but that radio genre had gone out of style. So he became a radio copywriter, acting in many of the spots he wrote and produced. That led to his becoming a marketing copywriter in the full range of media, and over the years Randy has worked at many of New York ad agencies, large and small. Randy has served marketers ranging from Fortune 500 companies to home-based businesses, including IBM, Sony, Raymond James, SiteSell, Inc., United Technologies, Coca-Cola, Anso nylon, IHOP, and hundreds of other consumer and B2B companies. Now a freelancer, Randy also enjoys time to return to his roots as a voice actor and narrator. His advice, samples and insights into the nature of advertising are found at Rensch.com.

Once upon a time when I was finishing a day of freelance copywriting at a major ad agency, one of the Creative Directors popped into my office and asked, “How do you write for radio?”

Bear in mind that this was a head honcho, so you’d think he’d know. But his bailiwick was mainly print advertising. He was right to ask, because commercials are different. And as I told him, there is no one way to write for them.

There’s no one right way to read them, either. There are all sorts of commercials, all sorts of objectives, and all sorts of clients. The only common denominator is this: the client’s objective is to always to sell something. It might be a product, or a service, or an idea. It might be simply to make the listener feel good about the brand, or it might be to generate a phone order as you speak. But ultimately, as one venerable ad agency has put it, “It’s not creative unless it sells.”

This can make the Commercials genre experience quite different from many other genres. For example, in Narration, you can reasonably assume that the listener/viewer wants to learn about the love life of wildebeest. In Audiobooks, the customer may even have paid to hear what you have to say. In Telephony, you’re rendering a service to the caller (and if it’s an on-hold message, at that moment your message doesn’t have so much competition for the listener’s attention). And so on.

Whereas in Commercials, as we all know, the listener has no built-in incentive to pay attention, has lots of other options, and usually doesn’t care a whit about the product you’re selling.

That’s part of the challenge, and that challenge is one of the reasons why performing even a mundane TV or radio commercial can be fun.

The glass or distance between the you and the advertising client, insulates talent from many of the client’s views and concerns. Understanding how it looks and feels from outside the booth will help you enjoy doing Commercials and satisfy clients more.

The genre encompasses a wide range of clients and producers. If you’re working with an experienced producer who casts and cuts spots every day, you’ll know that pretty quick. If, on the other hand, the commercial is being produced by the client themselves, be alert -- you might know more about this process than they do. Especially with smaller, non-mainstream marketers, they might produce a commercial once a year. It’s a special event for them, and maybe a chancy expenditure. Sometime this leads to exuberance and little attention to detail, sometimes it leads to conservative choices and rigid direction. The one constant in this scenario is that you should help them be confident in your capability and judgment, and in your ability to understand their creative and marketing goal.

Some commercials are just commercials. Face it. While a warm or funny slice of life script for a major fast food chain is the more interesting and fun side of the genre, many commercials are more like a series of 10-second Holiday Sale scripts for a department store. You just can’t have the same expectations for such dissimilar types of jobs. The department store type of client might even present you with dozens of scripts to read in a limited amount of studio time. So, in addition to giving the store your signature voice, you’ll need to be efficient. Take pleasure in a task well done for people you (hopefully) enjoy working with, as you then efficiently bank their payment.

The script may or may not have been written for speaking aloud. Ad copy that’s very effective in print can be an obstacle course when read aloud. If you are met with one of these, be alert for possible confused meanings (a la the classic opening: “Attention sewers!”), hard-to-follow sentence length and construction, and non-conversational tone. By making good choices in pronunciation and phrasing, you can improve the script without actually changing its words. If necessary, find a tactful way to point out that a certain word or phrase might be misheard or misunderstood. (E.g., When it came to fireworks, he was extremely awed/odd.)

Respect the script’s formatting. Respect the client. And respect your judgment. As a rule, voice over talent should carefully heed the script’s formatting. Pause at commas, pause a bit more at periods, don’t pause unnecessarily. Understand the possible different meaning of an ellipsis (...) versus a dash, and so on. But there is no universal standard for formatting audio copy. Sometimes the copywriter has thought through every line break and punctuation. However, sometimes they’ve just typed the words as they themselves hear them, and since they know what they’re hearing, they don’t bother to think about the fine points of copy formatting. Some clients may even think that a script should be typed entirely in capital letters, if only because they’ve seen scripts that way historically. (As an Art Director will tell you, all-caps in long copy reduces readability. It also reduces the ability to indicate brand names or emphasis by capping a word or letter.) Your job is to know the rules and follow them, but if your judgment says a rule is to be broken, go ahead and break it ...with permission and care.

Don’t touch da woids. Although not always well written or formatted, a commercial script is usually very well vetted. With a major marketer, the approval process may have involved a dozen waypoints (copywriter, creative director, client, lawyer(s), etc.), so that every word has been carefully approved. In some product categories (e.g., financial, health, technical), not only is every word and phrase included for a reason, its pronunciation may also be carefully prescribed. (For example, the word “n-said” used to have two pronunciation options -- “en-seds” or “en-sayds” -- but now we hear only one -- possibly because the other was heard as “ens-AIDS”?

Know the genre’s vocabulary. Much of it is not unique to Commercials. For example, in many other genres you’ll be directed to “hit” something. But in Commercials, you’re likely to hear that direction more often. Sometimes it comes from the client knowing something about their marketing objective or customer interests that you couldn’t possibly predict. But there are other words unique to the Commercials genre. Not knowing them won’t kill your chances, but knowing them does make you seem more hip. For example:

  • Commercial or Script - Some industry people bristle at hearing a commercial being called an “ad.” It depends on the speaker’s context.
  • Spot - a radio or TV commercial
  • Flight - a schedule of spots
  • Tag - the end of a commercial, often several versions and separately recorded
  • Tag line - Campaign theme phrase, aka position statement, slogan, umbrella line (e.g., Nike’s “Just do it.”)
  • Button, stinger, donut, etc. - various parts of a commercial involving sound effect(s), music or singing.

Wait, wait, there’s more! In Part Two, we’ll continue our list looking at Commercials from inside and outside the booth.

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To learn more about the Commercial genre or to schedule with one of our voice over coaches, call our studio at 888-321-3343 or email training@edgestudio.com.

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