This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
This show would not be possible without our advertisers. Seriously. Don’t worry, I’m not about to read some ads right now. I just want you to consider the way we use advertising. A lot of podcasters and radio hosts, myself included, read out messages from our sponsors rather than play pre-recorded commercials. Rush Limbaugh does it.
“Boll & Branch, they have reinvented sheets and bedding with the sole purpose of making your nighttime rest more comfortable than ever.”
Howard Stern does it.
“It’s SnoreStop Extinguisher. Yes, the fast-acting snore spray.”
And these ads, in some ways, actually harken back to where audio advertising began. But the journey of how we got to now is fascinating.
‘The Organist’, a podcast from KCRW and McSweeney’s, recently featured a two-part documentary about the surprising and strange history of radio advertising as heard from the ears of Clive Desmond, a radio producer and podcast host who has worked extensively in the ad industry. His account of the evolution of ads spots, jingles and voice-overs all add up into a story of his own journey and it starts when he was a boy.
I grew up in a little bungalow-style house in Buffalo, New York. There was a beautiful radio in the kitchen. It was always on. In 1959 when I was two and a half, I began listening. My favorite station was WKBW.
It was a top-40 station, so there were three or four commercials between every song. Listening as intensely as I did, I soon discovered that all radio commercials weren’t the same. They were like pasta. They came in different shapes. There were monologue commercials, dialogue commercials, interview commercials, musical commercials.
But even to my tiny, tender ears, I noticed all commercials had one thing in common. A certain lack of authenticity. The radio voices spoke with a cheery make-believe tone. One that said, “It’s going to be wonderful. Everything’s great.” This was a tone I had never heard real people speak in except for one of our neighbors, Mrs. Cunningham. She was an optimist.
But then one day, when I least expected, I heard a radio commercial that features a little girl.
Bosco Syrup Radio Ad:
(Marsha, what’s your opinion of all the vitamins and minerals in Bosco?)
Marsha: “I never saw them.”
(Oh, you can’t see them but they’re there. It says so right there on the label.)
Marsha: “I don’t know how to read yet. I’m only four.”
(I’m sorry, Marsha.)
Marsha: “That’s okay. Anyway, I don’t care about vitamins and things. I just like Bosco because it makes my milk taste so good.”
(What does it taste like?)
Marsha: “Like milk with chocolate it. I don’t drink milk without it.”
(Well, Bosco is good for you.)
Marsha: “I know. But mother thinks I like Bosco because of vitamins. But I just like it because it tastes good.”
(Looks like you fooled her.)
Marsha: “Mother’s so smart but kids are smarter.”
This little girl’s voice had a powerful effect on me because she sounded as real as the girl who lived in the bungalow next door to us.
A few days later, sitting in the back seat of the family car, we drove past WKBW in downtown Buffalo. I peered out the window at the station and wondered if the Bosco syrup girl lived there. How else could the girl in the commercial be on the radio like that all the time? I hadn’t yet learned about the wonders of the tape recorder.
While I sat in the car, pondering the whereabouts of the Bosco syrup girl, 375 miles to the south in New York City was a man who made the Bosco syrup radio commercial. His name was Tony Schwartz. He was a radio producer and audio archivist. Tony Schwartz specialized in recording commercials with real people instead of recording actors trying to portray real people. Which meant the Bosco syrup girl was a real child and not a 35-year-old actor playing a child. Schwartz’s production philosophy was to avoid the use of any music or unnecessary sound effects. And when he did work with actors, Schwartz directed them not to sound like actors. In this way, Tony Schwartz was radio advertising’s first modernist.
NYC Fire Department Public Service Ad:
A fire breaks out on the first floor of a two-family house.
The woman quickly leaves to call the fire department.
And two people die upstairs, overcome by smoke.
A man smoking in bed starts a fire.
Leaves the bedroom, rushes to a phone.
And before the fire department, gets there-
… the rest of his house burns down.
Is there one single act that could have been done-
(Close the Door.)
… to help prevent this needless loss of life and property?
(Close the Door.)
What should these people have done?
(Close the Door.)
Do you know that a door is one of the best pieces of fire fighting and life-saving equipment?
(Close the Door.)
And if you leave a room that is on fire-
(Close the Door.)
… if you simply closed the door-
(Close the Door.)
… it will help stop the fire and smoke from spreading too quickly.
(Close the Door.)
This life-saving information is brought to you by this station and the New York City Fire Department.
After I turned nine, every summer, I was ritually shipped to California to spend time with my cousins in San Francisco. Like most children, I was fond of Saturday morning cartoons. The more cartoons I watched, the more familiar I became with the characters. And the more familiar I became with the characters – Bugs, Popeye, Bullwinkle – the more I took notice of their specific voices. But there was one voice I liked most. Perhaps because he sounded so uncartoon-like. You may know him as Pete Puma, Junyer Bear or Jiminy Lummox.
He appeared in “Sylvester & Tweety”, “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour”, “Ren & Stimpy”, “Stuart Little” and “I go Pogo” among hundreds of other shows. But when I was a boy, he was in radio commercials too. His name was Stan Freberg.
Chun King Ad (Stan Freberg):
“Announcing the 1966 Chun King. Sleek, arrogant, a different breed of chow mein. You see it instantly in its bold new bean sprouts. It’s crisp, aggressive water chestnuts. Talk about extras. You want bucket bamboo shoots, power onions? You got it, mister, in the 1966 Chun King chow mein. Outside too, you’ll notice the revolutionary styling of its round cans right away, wrap-around labels, more thicker than the two cans taped together. That’s standard equipment on this baby.”
Chun King Ad (Stan Freberg):
“Look at the way she handles. In the bottom can, independent vegetable suspension. And in the top can where the action is, over 27 cubic inches of succulent Chun King sauce loaded with high-performance chicken. Step up to the tuned chow mein. The 1966 Chun King. Noodles optional.”
I didn’t know who Stan Freberg was or how big a role he would play in the evolution of sound for radio commercials. But whenever I heard his voice, it got my attention. One night, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with my Uncle Owen, Stan Freberg’s voice popped out of the speaker. Stunned, I asked my uncle, “Could you turn that up?”
Who Listens to Radio Ad:
(Radio? Why should I advertise on radio? There’s nothing to look at. No pictures.)
Listen, you can do things on radio you couldn’t possibly do on TV.
(That’ll be there the day.)
All right, watch this. Okay, people. Now, when I give you the cue, I want the 700-foot mountain of whipped cream to roll into Lake Michigan which has been drained and filled with hot chocolate. Then, the Royal Canadian Air Force will fly overhead towing a 10-ton maraschino cherry which will be dropped into the whipped cream with the cheering of 25,000 extras. All right, cue the mountain! Cue the air force! Cue the maraschino cherry. Okay, 25,000 cheering extras. Now, you want to try that on television?
You see, radio is a very special medium because it stretches the imagination.
(Doesn’t television stretch the imagination?)
Up to 21 inches, yes.
‘Who Listens to Radio’ was part of an advocacy campaign sponsored by the Radio Advertising Bureau of America to encourage clients to buy more radio time. Apparently, radio was going through a sales drought. Nevertheless, Stan Freberg was the main voice of this epic radio commercial and that’s what caught my attention. Hearing Freberg command a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream being rolled into Lake Michigan while the Royal Canadian Air Force towed a giant maraschino through the sky, it flipped a switch in my imagination as nothing had before. This was bigger than the Bosco chocolate syrup girl. Although in hindsight, she was still pretty good.
To a nine-year-old, two weeks feels like a year. And that was more than enough time for me to untether myself from the familiar sounds from Buffalo and absorb the subtly different tone and tempo of California. California, mm.. Two weeks on the west coast had cleared my mind and readied me for the next phase in my radio commercial journey.
After my vacation ended, I was sent home to Buffalo via scenic route. I spent most of my time in the observation car with a new transistor radio my Uncle Owen had given me as a going-away present. The radio, model name Juliette, was about the size of an iPhone 5. It was an inch deep and came with a leather cover as soft as a lamb’s ear. But of most importance, it had an earplug.
The earplug looked like a piece of outmoded technology from the Balkan Wars. Brown and round as a walnut attached to the radio by a coiled wire. Listening with the earplug was a new experience for me. It was like being in a radio cocoon. Station after station, commercial after commercial, I slowly began to overdose. Then, I made a disturbing discovery. The more I listened, the more I recognized the sameness of all the stations and commercials. After hours of this echo chamber, I grew bored. I wanted to hear something new, something different.
Two days later, after passing through the American heartland, the train had a one-hour layover in Chicago. My plan was to stay on the train, listen to the ballgame and read ‘The Amazing Spiderman #38’. During the first inning, I fell asleep and had a dream. A weird kind of dream. You can call it a radio dream. And now, the dream.
I am in Chicago. I leave my train seat and go outside. Next, I am walking through a secret tunnel. But I had to be careful because it was dark. The tunnel led to a theater. Suddenly, the footlights come on and a lanky man in a black suit walks up a few steps on the stage. He unfolds a greasy sheaf of papers and starts to read. A small jazz band gets to work behind him.
“I want you to know that I love my baby and my baby loves me. Short time ago, we went out together to a place called Far Out. Up in limbo, the rhythm was there. I reached over and held my baby’s hand. She gave me a little squeeze. I knew we were in the same key. Everything is beginning to swing in a quiet, cool, warm way.”
Years later, I would learn that this combination of writing and music was called ‘word jazz’. And the pioneer who created that was a man called Ken Nordine.
“… when my baby looks at me with that special look she gets.”
Then, I heard a train whistle and I woke up and I snapped back into reality. In the beginning, Nordine was simply a writer and a performer with a lot to say. To supplement his meager income, he began making radio commercials in the word jazz style. As we pulled out of Chicago, an ordained commercial played over my Juliette radio earphone. It was as though the heavens had opened and I heeded the voice of all that could be.
Shirriff Flavour Bud Radio Ad:
Think with your tongue about lemon. From the first smack, your tongue can tell that lemon is something else. A something so subtly obvious by something so obviously subtle. Yet, there was a feeling among yesterday’s tongue that the something else that is lemon wasn’t getting it’s just desserts. But that was before the Shirriff Flavour Bud. Nothing’s secret about Flavour Bud-
… except it gives you a perfect lemon jelly dessert every time.
Best thing that’s happened to lemon since trees.
Best thing that’s happened for tongues since please.
Flavour Bud is what makes this lemon so lemony-lemon.
Reward your family with the Shirriff Jelly Dessert marked ‘lemon’.
As any honest tongue will tell you, not all jellies are created equal. So ask for Shirriff Jelly Dessert.
(Shirriff, this time, lemon.)
The lemon dessert radio spot was like nothing I’d ever heard. But it was just what I’d been searching for. Nordine had created something fresh and it seemingly came from out of nowhere. I loved it. But I didn’t have much hope that anything else like this would be coming down the line. Perhaps, I was too young to see that Nordine was a harbinger of things to come.
On the last Friday of the summer of ’66, I arrived in Buffalo. But I wouldn’t be there long because that night at dinner, my father announced the family was moving to Toronto. As long as I had my comics, my Juliette radio and uninterrupted access to my favorite Buffalo media, the move to Toronto meant little to me. Heck, I thought, it may even be a good thing.
As a child growing up in the 60s, I can’t say I love jingles. In the 60s, all the jingles I heard were reiterations of jingles from the past. Sure, they were as cute as a basket of puppies. But for the most part, nothing more than tuneless, mindless junk. That was until the summer of 1967 when some very strange things began to happen in the universe of the lowly jingle.
In 1967, the Beatles record, ‘Sgt. Pepper’, had just come out and popular music suffered a massive disruption. With its sitars, barnyard sounds and allusions to Lewis Carroll and Stockhausen, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ landed with a bang. And so big was the bang, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sent jingle producers on a mad scramble to copy the new sound any which way they could.
One of our neighbors, a jingle producer named Mort Ross, went berserk. At a barbecue one night, I remember Mort telling my mother, “This is the biggest thing ever. What am I going to do? How can I compete with the goddamn Beatles?” My mother looked solemnly at her freshly-manicured fingernails and said nothing. The Beatles, of course, had always been badgered to endorse products. But beating the Beatles, it was not meant to be. However, if the Beatles wouldn’t make a jingle, there were plenty of musicians who would.
Still giddy from the success of their single, ‘White Rabbit’, the Jefferson Airplane accepted an invitation to make a jingle. The invitation and by way of Levi Strauss, the clothing company, who were anxious to draw attention to their line of white jeans. It may take a second or two to grasp what you’re about to hear, but it’s a jingle all right. A summer of love jingle. Listen to the way Grace Slick summons the spirit from a pair of white jeans.
Levi Jeans Radio Jingle:
(Now, Jefferson Airplane.)
Right now with your white Levi’s…
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the strangest jingle to come out of the period was a spot for Remington electric razors. It was produced by Frank Zappa. Teaming up with then-unknown singer, Linda Ronstadt, Zappa produced one of the most magnificently odd jingles in the history of radio.
Remington Electric Razor Jingle:
Can you think of a better gift than something that helps a guy look good and feel good every single day of their year? Can you?
(Remington electric razor, Remington electric razor….
Cleans you, thrill you, may even keep you from getting busted!)
Of course, senior management at Remington rejected Zappa’s jingle. I don’t know why because Zappa’s jingle is a one of a kind creation. To be honest, it’s a strain just shaving itself.
Over the next three years, I adjusted to my new life in the dominion of Canada. I went to school, stumbled through the nuances of Canadian English. And because Buffalo was only 35 miles south of Toronto, across Lake Ontario, I could still pick up my favorite Buffalo stations while exploring all the radio Toronto had to offer. CHUM, CBC, CFRB, the list went on.
By divine intervention, my father, a gadget freak, acquired an enormous Sony two-track reel-to-reel tape recorder on which I learned to record and edit. When I was 12, my voice began to break and I saw my future. I was going to become a voiceover actor in radio commercials. And maybe if I was lucky, I’d be on TV commercials too. One step at a time, I warned myself. One step at a time.
My voiceover nom de plume was Chris Christensen. Reading into the Sony tape recorder as Chris, I practiced every day. I read copy from a magazine ad to make my first radio commercial. It was an experience in humility.
Radio Ad (Clive Desmond as Chris Christensen):
“Tape one. A lot of cigarettes promise taste. But for me, only one cigarette delivers and that’s Doral. Tape cue. A lot of cigarettes-”
In seventh grade, I had a friend who intentionally dressed and wore his hair to look like Andy Warhol. His name was Taylor Reid. Taylor’s father, Mr. Reid, was an account executive at the ad firm, McCann Erickson. McCann Erickson’s biggest client was Coca-Cola. On weekends, when Taylor’s dad had custody of Taylor, I would often tag along and the three of us would hang out at Mr. Reid’s office at McCann.
One Sunday in February, Mr. Reid took us into the board room, we sat down and he explained he had a top-secret radio project to show us and he wanted our opinion. Then he pressed the button. The curtains closed. The lights went down. We sat in the dark and waited. And then a voice of such angelic purity pierced through the silence and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.”
After the new Coke jingle played, Mr. Reid said, “So, what do you boys think?” We gave a thumbs up. And boy, were we right. The simple words and melody of the Coke jingle suggested that the clearest path to utopia was through the mouth of a Coke bottle. Still, preposterous or not, to this day, ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ remains one of the most popular jingles in the history of radio.
When FM radio came on the scene, I put my Juliette portable transistor radio in retirement and acquired a new portable Panasonic radio with AM/FM reception and stereo earplugs. The new radio was smaller than a paperback, yet bigger than the Juliette. Every Saturday and Sunday night, I would lie on my bed in the dark and toggle across the frequency band of my Panasonic in search of new things to hear.
At that time, I was very excited that I had discovered the concept of irony. I was always on the outlook for tiny ironic moments to test my new capacity for irony detection. My solitary weekend listening parties typically went something like this. Saturday night, 10pm, WGR Radio Buffalo tuned into Larry King. Topic? The Vietnam War with actor Jane Fonda.
WGR Radio Buffalo:
Larry King: “He’ll always be part of you.”
Jane Fonda: “Always. But so will Tom Hayden and so would Vadim except he died.”
Memorable moment? An army recruitment ad produced by Ken Nordine. Yes, the same word jazz Ken Nordine I heard in Chicago played right after Jane delivered an arousing speech about the hypocrisy and evil of the military-industrial complex.
Army Recruitment Ad:
“Young man. Are you haunted by a fear of failure? Chained to a dull job with no future? When the door to opportunity swings open and success awaits, do you have a ghost of a chance? Well, don’t despair. You’re still young. There’s still time. Time to escape from a dearly future. How? Choose your own job training in today’s army and say goodbye to the evil eye.”
Sunday night, 8pm, CHUM FM Toronto. Show? The Firesign Theatre.
The Fireside Theater:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the radio public. Tonight, athletes in action, the heaviest show you’ll ever see.”
A surreal stream of consciousness comedy radio show produced in Los Angeles that often made coded references to recreational drug use. Usually, marijuana. Memorable moment? The Canadian Department of Health was a key sponsor of ‘The Firesign Theatre’ show. So during commercial breaks, listeners were bombarded by endless rounds of Anti-Drug PSAs like this weird contribution staring Indian classical musician, Ravi Shankar.
“This is Ravi Shankar. As I travel around the world, I think that the young people are searching for the means with which to obtain peace, happiness, and spiritual awareness. Why not get high on life with us without using any drugs? You young ones, you have the benefit of life. You don’t need hard drugs to make your life more meaningful.”
In high school, I was a loner. A real Holden Caulfield. But I managed to avoid most of the humiliating pitfalls of adolescence with a rapier wit, all of it stolen from George Carlin and because I was always wearing earphones.
After graduation, I took the radio and television arts course at Ryerson University where I excelled at reading weather reports on the student radio station, CFRM. On sunny days, I would call for rain. On chilly days, I would call for warmth. I was a real barrel of stupid collegiate laughs. After my freshman year at Ryerson, I got lucky and landed a summer job as a Boy Friday at a Toronto recording studio called Morgan Earl Sounds. I was the lowest rung on the ladder. My daily duties included vacuuming, picking up my boss’s dry cleaning, cataloging tapes and endlessly restocking mid-priced wine for our clientele of attractive ad agency creative department workers. These were the beautiful people and now I was among them.
Morgan Earl Sounds specialized in making two things – radio commercials and jingles. On any given day, I’d hear an amazing a cortege of radio commercials with the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, and John Candy. None of whom were household names yet.
Harland Auto Radio Ad:
(Hey, come on. We’re paying you to say Dorval Circle.)
Harland Auto. As easy to get to as they are to talk to. Easy route number one. Take the metropolitan to the Cote de Liesse exit and follow Cote de Liesse to the Winner’s Circle.
(It’s Harland Auto at the Dorval Circle. You want to get it right, pal?)
Excuse me. Or easy route number two. Take the Trans-Canada to Des Sources Boulevard. Go south on Sources to highway’s two and 20 then west to the Winner’s Circle.
(It’s Dorval Circle. Can you say that? Move your mouth. Move your mouth. Dorval. Dorval. We’re paying you the money. Come on, Dorval.)
Once you’re there, you’re where you should be for the best in General Motors car sales and service. Harland Auto has been there for years. And for years, they’ve been the automatic choice. Thinking GM? Think Harland. Look for them at the Winner’s Circle.
(Are you having problems at home or something? You can’t read the script. It’s right there in front of you. Dorval.)
I’ve had enough of you.
(Get your hands off of me.)
Will you leave me alone?
(Leave you alone? I’ll leave you alone. Hey, don’t …)
As easy to get to as they are to talk to. Harland Auto at the Winner’s Circle.
(Dorval. It’s called Dorval … Oh, get your hands off me!)
After two days on the job, I was shocked when one of the senior producers invited me into the studio to witness the production of a radio commercial. For listeners who have never set foot in a recording studio, here’s how it looks.
The recording environment is comprised of two rooms. A studio and a control room. The studio is soundproof and contains microphones and headphones for the performers. The control room has a variety of speakers, recording devices and a mixing console, which allows you to edit and assemble the recorded material. There is also plush seating that includes leather-bound sofas to catch the occasional spilled drink. In those days, the control room air was rich in the unmistakable aroma of Ampex 456 recording tape. A scent that recalls campfire smoke and styrofoam packing peanuts. There were ashtrays everywhere. And strewn around the room like sleeping domestic house cats were the coterie of writers, producers and client representatives.
Given the often experimental aesthetic of the time and the success of ‘Second City’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’, many commercial recording sessions relied not on scripts but on the improvisational talent of the performers. I remember being at Morgan Earl one night and watching ‘Second City’ record a commercial for an upcoming federal election. Here’s an outtake from that session.
Second City Federal Election Ad:
(What do you think we have to do to get people involved in politics?)
I say we can rent buses for them and force them to go to these meetings.
(I see. Well, what do you think we have to do to get people involved in politics?)
I think we should send them more letters, tell them what’s happening and make them read them.
(Excuse me. What do you think we’re going to have to do to get people involved in politics and good government?)
Well, I say if they don’t go to the meetings, just tax them. Just tax them real heavy. Hit them where it hurts, in the pocket.
I think political parties should be parties. I think that’s what people are attracted to. They’re attracted to fun and you make politics fun, then you got a lot of people involved.
One of the great things about working at Morgan Earl were the out-of-town guests. Henry Winkler, William Shatner, and Alice Cooper all stopped by for one reason or another. A familiar face at the studio was San Francisco-based radio writer, interviewer and genius, Mal Sharpe. Mal’s specialty is the ‘Man on the Street’ radio commercial.
I spent one day as a tape operator assisting Mal recording some commercials outside. He wore a trench coat and a stylish fedora. Mal is one of the most fascinating and charismatic men I have ever met. Of the many lessons Mal taught me that day, the most important and fact was how to talk with complete strangers. Mal could talk to almost anyone because he knew the power of kindness.
Man on the Street Radio Ad:
(Well, this is Mal Sharpe along with Ernie Anderson. And, of course, in the background, you hear the people of California chanting for Bell Brand to defeat the rival, Chip. You could hear them as they sing Bell Brand, Bell Brand, Bell Brand in the background. Ma’am, you’re out here and you could these people. Do you think this is going to be good for sales?)
Well, it’s a new thing. It’s the new in-thing.
(Do you understand what they’re chanting?)
Well, doesn’t sound like potato chips at all.
(What does it sound like?)
It sounds like an Indian chant. It’s incongruous.
(So in summation, you think it’s going to be a good year for Bell Brand Potato Chips as long as there’s chanting?)
I don’t think so. I think it’s going to be a good year for their brand regardless of the chanting because their product is so good.
(Fresh, crisp and yummy?)
Oh, very. Now, what else do you want from me?
(If it’s Bell, it’s swell.)
Did you notice the pintsized musical flourish at the end of the Bell potato chip spot? It’s called a tag. Tags belong to a musical genre that began as an experiment for a waning breakfast cereal in 1926. What began as an audio experiment for a waning breakfast cereal in 1926 would, over the next five decades, become a distinct musical form. It’s called a jingle. Although, I was exposed to thousands of jingles during my childhood, two of which you’ve already heard, who would have known there was a creative jingle explosion looming just around the corner.
Jingles have been around since the beginning of radio. But in the 1970s, we had peak jingle. But since they fell out of fashion so long ago, this may be a good time to review what actually makes a jingle a jingle. Jingles always have a catchy melody that’s easy to sing. There must be earworms, burrowing their way in and staying there for days. Lyrically, some jingles try to create a vague atmosphere of desire in a listener’s imagination. Other kinds of jingles play to the listener with more specific appeals underlining the virtue of a product’s price, speed, sexiness or mouthwatering ingredients.
Big Mac Jingle:
“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles…”
Traditional jingles come with a chorus of singers who repeat a catchphrase or tagline near the end.
But what a jingle really does is bind an emotion to a product or a service.
American Airlines Jingle:
“From the sunrise in the east, to the sunset in the west, we’re American Airlines. Doing what we do best…”
By design, jingles bypass the analytical lobes in the brain and instead, stimulate the nucleus accumbens or pleasure centers. Once you hear it, a jingle creates an itch that you can’t stop scratching. Between 1970 and 1980, ad companies produced thousands of jingles and for a good reason.
Change was in the air. In the 1970s, a new generation of very sophisticated young jingle writers flooded the jingle jungle and couldn’t help but write music that appealed to their generation. But none of this came as a big surprise to me because, in many ways, I was one of them. Growing up on a diet of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, how could I not have been?
Take Dr. Pepper. The first time I heard “Be a Pepper” in ’77, I had to pull over to the side of the road. Randy Newman and Jake Holmes wrote a jingle, which begins with a startling statement. ‘I drank Dr. Pepper because I’m proud. I used to be alone in a crowd.’ What? Did Dr. Pepper bottle a cure for alienation? Let’s take a sip and see.
Dr. Pepper Jingle:
I drink Dr. Pepper and I’m proud.
I use to feel alone in a crowd.
But now you look around these days.
And it seems there’s a Dr. Pepper CRAZE.
Only Dr. Pepper tastes that way.
I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper.
Wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?
I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper.
Wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?
Be a Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…
For me, ‘Be a Pepper’ was an awakening. Listeners were calling radio stations requesting to hear ‘Be a Pepper’ as though it were a hit song. The power of this fact wasn’t lost on me. At 20 years old, I began producing radio commercials. Then I joined the Musician and Actors Union and began writing, playing, and singing on jingles.
Boston Pizza Ad:
“Rib Lovers Festival is on now. $16.95 only at Boston Pizza.”
Reading the union newsletters, I discovered that Toronto was a hub of jingle innovation. But that the real center of the jingle universe was New York.
“The next stop is Grand Central, 42nd Street.”
And so, like thousands of starry-eyed kids with a dream, in 1984, I moved to Gotham City, found an apartment and hit the pavement with my demo tape in hand. As luck would have it, I was soon working. During my New York journey, I was a writer and a producer. I worked for ad agencies and sound production companies. I listened as radio ads shortened from 60 seconds to 30 seconds. Aghast as creativity was often crushed by an increasingly powerful beast called market research. Yet, despite the many obstacles, I was always in the studio doing what I loved most. Making radio.
No matter what place I am or era I’m living in, one thing has always been clear to me. Radio commercials are never the main course. Like the complimentary basket of garlic bread you get at an Italian restaurant, radio commercials are not something you order but rather something you expect and sometimes take delight in. Of course, unlike today’s complimentary basket of garlic bread, the very first radio commercial was written and produced without a known format to follow. No one knew how short or how long it should be and if it would work at all and what, if anything, would happen after it went to air.
On August 28, 1922, on WEAF Radio in New York, a man called Mr. Blackwell stood behind a mic and urged unsuspecting listeners to leave Manhattan for the family-friendly tree-lined streets of Jackson Heights in the burrows of Queens. If living in New York was getting on your nerves, Mr. Blackwell had news for you. A magical new place called Hawthorne Court Apartment Homes. Listen to Blackwell’s pitch for this exciting new place to live. Your health may depend on it.
Hawthorne Court Apartment Homes Ad:
“Friends, you owe to yourself and your family to leave the congested city and enjoy what nature intended you to enjoy. Visit our new apartment homes in Hawthorne Court, Jackson Heights where you may enjoy community life in a friendly environment.”
History doesn’t say what happened to Blackwell. But response to the radio commercial was overwhelming. Because within days, the vacant apartments of Hawthorne Court Apartment Homes were filled. All of this because of one simple radio commercial. When word of the Hawthorne radio miracle spread, every station in New York understood the potential and rushed into the fray. Finally, seeing a way to make real money, radio embraced commercials and radio commercials became a mainstay of the radio experience.
What began as an audio experiment from 90 years ago eventually became a worldwide industry worth billions of dollars. Brilliant or silly, thought-provoking or moving, the humble radio commercial became the fuel, you could say that allows radio to play the news, music, and stories we’ve been listening to ever since. For ‘The Organist’, from KCRW and McSweeny’s, I’m Clive Desmond.
“In ever Chevrolet storeroom across America, more and more people are with a car that’s just out and just wonderful.”
This was just an edited version of part one of Clive Desmond’s two-part personal history of radio advertising. To hear the rest, check out ‘The Organist’ from KCRW and McSweeney’s. There’s a link on our website.