The Impatient Hot-Tub Guy and Other Advertising Adventures

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The preacher’s nightmare is when you feel called by God on Saturday afternoon to throw out the Sunday sermon you worked on all week and preach on something else. The podcaster’s nightmare is when you spend several hours over a period of weeks working up an episode, only to decide 24 hours before it’s supposed to air that it sucks. So there’s no Christmas podcast here today, as I had planned. In its place, here’s a rebooted post that originally ran this week in 2006. I am not sure how much of this stuff is true anymore, but it used to be. 

All across the country, radio stations will launch a promotion in the next day or two (if they haven’t done so already) that many of them will call “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The details will differ but generally, this major holiday promotion has two goals in mind: A) capturing as many holiday advertising dollars as possible and B) plying the listeners with swag. Of course, the definition of “swag” is up for grabs. The best holiday prizes my radio stations ever gave away were Christmas trees decorated with dollar bills, $50 to a tree. The worst were probably certificates for free tanning. If there’s a worse prize to have to give away than free tanning certificates, I’m not sure what it is. I’d rather give away cigarettes. At one station, the prizes an advertiser provided to us were things they couldn’t sell—one I remember is an electric hot-dog bun warmer.

Back in the day, the holiday season brought out a particular sort of advertiser: the kind that hasn’t been on since last Christmas, and that won’t be on again until next Christmas, or until their going-out-of-business sale. A subset of this group consists of clients for whom the amount of aggravation they intend to put you through is inversely proportional to the amount of money they intend to spend. Clients who advertise regularly and spend a fair amount of money tend to know how advertising works, and they often trust the station to get things right. People who think they’re livin’ large by spending $100, however, will pester you until it’s like being pecked to death by a duck. Plan on at least two spec scripts and two revisions before they’ll sign on the dotted line. And then, when you finally get them to approve the ad, that’s when the fun is sometimes just beginning.

I once developed a spot for a hot-tub dealer who had been the subject of a long and difficult seduction by one of our sales reps. We put in hours of work, doing several revisions, including the time we burned down the whole damn thing and started over, but we got the buy, five ads a day for five days starting Monday—not a big buy, but a start. On Monday afternoon, the studio intercom blinked. It was the receptionist, who said, “Andrew [the sales rep] is out of the building. Can you talk to the hot-tub guy? He needs to talk to somebody right now.”

It seems the guy wanted to cancel his advertising. “It’s not working,” he told me. “Nobody’s come into the store who says they’ve heard it.”

It had been on twice.

I gently explained the concept of frequency, and I promised that I’d have Andrew call him just as soon as he got back, because Andrew got paid for that sort of advertiser triage, and I didn’t.

Toward the end of the holiday season, small-town stations start selling holiday greetings. Stations put together inexpensive packages in which advertisers can thank their many friends and customers for their patronage during the past year, and say that they look forward to serving them in the new year. There are a limited number of ways to say this, and the most commonly used version is the one in the preceding sentence. Sponsor greetings are the tanning certificates of advertising—good enough when they’re all you’ve got.

All that said, however, there were scattered moments during the holiday season when it would all seem worthwhile. You’d be on the air, and you’d play a spot on which you’d done good work and for which the client had paid a bundle, then you’d start up a really good Christmas tune and do a nice little talkover, hitting the post perfectly, then look out the window to see snowflakes dusting the station parking lot. And you’d think, “Damn, I love my job.” Tanning-certificate giveaways and all.

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