Friday, September 1, 2023

My First Spot. And Robert Burns.

I remember back literally forty years ago when I recorded my first radio commercial. 

The assignment itself was a crisis, as so many are. Especially in an era before we had turned the word calendar into a verb. 

The agency had shot a raft of 30-second television commercials that were very successful. The client, out of the blue demanded 60-second radio commercials that used the entirety of the 30-second TV scripts. It wasn't a bad idea. It's just that it wasn't planned for. That means someone had to think.

All the senior people involved in the television spots couldn't figure out how to make this request work. Hangdog, they came to my tiny inside office late one night and gave me the assignment, telling me it was due the next morning.

I had a blue IBM Selectric II in those pre-computer days than had a reassuring hum and feeling of solidity no computer can replicate. I got to work, worried it would take me all night. But in about 45 minutes, I had figured out a way to add to the spots, not just stretch them. Actually, make them adroit for radio--and improve them.

I had the chutzpah to run down to the office of the President of the agency, where all the senior TV people had gathered. I presented the work and they were silent. 

"How how how did you do that?"

"I dunno," I sheepished. 

In less than a week I was in my first recording session with my ACD and a voice actor of the oldest school. The Cronkite-ian voice of authority, listening to a guy called Harlan Rector read my words. I was blown-away.

Of course, we were listening to Harlan on speakers the size of a New York brownstone. But soon, the engineer played the spots back on "speakers the size of a quarter." The size of the speakers in the $3.99 Korvette's transistor radios of that era. 

I asked why--I knew nothing. It was so we could hear the spots how actual people would hear the spots.

I'm not sure how life works in agencies today--it's been almost four years since the ignominy of my grey hair outweighed the wisdom--and revenue--I was contributing. But when I watch my 30 minutes of TV a day on an actual TV or watch commercials on my computer during the day, it seems to me that no one's taken the time to view their commercials how real people will view them. Or, more likely, not even look up from their laptop.

In fact, most often, it seems to me that no one cares what real people think of their work. They're just interested in getting them past the 21 rounds of internal review and the 17 rounds of client review. 

Today, victory no longer comes from doing something good. 

The process of work is so torturous, victory today means getting something done. 

It's probably how Prometheus felt when Zeus chained him to that rock and buzzards ate his liver every day, only to have it grow back overnight and start all over tomorrow. That too, I suppose was considered a victory. Lasting another day.

No one seems to care that the premise of the commercial sucks. The acting is bad. The mix is too loud. And the crescendo of a joke--if it were ever funny--is no longer funny after the second viewing, much less the 200th. (That's approximately how many times a week I wind up seeing an average spot--and in these impecunious times, spots run for three years. That's why most commercials leave me hating brands and products rather than desiring them.)

I think an adjunct of awards mania is that we care only about what the industry thinks of our work not what actual users think of our work. 

Actual viewers be damned! The CMO loves it!

In a weird way, I always think of a couplet from Robert Burns when I look at work--mine or anyone elses'. I didn't learn about this in ad school. I learned it from living. How subversive.

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us  
To see oursels as others see us!

In plain old English, try to see your work as others see it. Not as you want others to see it. 


No comments: