If anyone doubts the power of radio, tell them to cast their minds back to 1938, when Orson Welles read a serialised version of the sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds over the US airwaves.
There was widespread panic as the American public believed they really were being invaded by the aliens described in the HG Wells classic. Radio audiences today are more sophisticated, able to decipher between editorial and advertising, reality and fiction. But the Holy Grail of keeping a listener riveted to the radio during an ad break means advertisers and creatives are constantly looking for ways to capture their attention.
A recent Ogilvy & Mather ad for the Imperial War Museum used a genuine last letter home from a frontline soldier to maximise the impact of war.
But however poignant, the ad was scripted, starred an actor, and upheld the excellent production values of the studio. All this is beginning to change, according to Simon Blaxland, the managing director of the radio production company Shell-like.
"In the past five to ten years, there's been a dramatic change in the way radio ads are made. There are fewer ads using the traditional set-up drama and strapline, and this is because we need to find more relevant ways to communicate with listeners," he comments.
Blaxland cites an ad for the National Army Museum, which captured a snapshot of a soldier's life through a journey to the museum recorded in the style of an Army manoeuvre: "The ad was recorded as the producer and soundman pounded the streets of London. Taking it out of the studio was a conscious decision to add more power to the ad."
Other examples of real-life scenarios and people include a campaign for Topic last year, through the then-named HHCL & Partners, which starred the voices of ordinary people instead of actors, and a campaign for the car manufacturer Lexus, which was recorded inside one of the cars to demonstrate the key message of the ad - its quietness.
Quiet Storm founder Trevor Robinson was the creative behind a series of radio ads for Apple Tango which featured a harassed character ringing up a variety of real people in an attempt to find their can of Tango. Robinson says the ads worked because they invited listeners into the real world and enabled them to imagine the scene in a voyeuristic way.
"We listened to radio DJs to see what made them so engaging, and tried to emulate that, as well as drawing on the antics of familiar comedy acts such as the Jerky Brothers. The whole point was the element of 'live' action, that the scene was really happening, and that the listener was in on the act," he says.
Robinson is convinced that using more "real" techniques is a surefire way of encouraging creativity for radio ads, but he is also wary of overkill.
"It has to be absolutely right for the brand and the job. And it still has to be entertaining, otherwise no-one will listen."
The BMP DDB copywriter Paul Burke is also reluctant to see reality radio ads as the panacea for creativity. "Just recording something for real, possibly not using a script or actors, does not automatically make for a great ad," he reasons. "The idea is still the most important element of any ad. It can be enhanced by taking a different route in production, certainly, but the beauty of radio has always been the fantastic results you can achieve, for relatively little money, in a studio. As for the same, boring old voices you hear in ads, why not use different actors?"
Production costs are a crucial issue, and Burke remains sceptical about the benefits of "real" radio. "Often, in the client's eyes, the production of radio ads is seen as secondary to the main TV budget. Often, there simply isn't the money to spend on finding the right location, the right people to perform," he explains.
One agency which is keen to reassess the importance of radio advertising is TBWA/London, whose joint managing director Jonathan Mildenhall approached the Radio Advertising Bureau to learn more about radio. "We hadn't won an award for a radio ad in more than three years," Mildenhall explains.
"That would be catastrophic for us had that applied to TV work. So we wanted to change the way we, and our clients, saw radio ad creation and evolution."
The collaboration resulted in a series of tactical ads for Five featuring the voice of the "movie-man", some of which used more "real" methods of capturing the sounds needed. "We needed the sound of a lift for one, and rather than recreate that in the studio, we found a suitable lift to use," Mildenhall says. Apart from hitting the client brief, "lift" also won the agency an Ariel award, and the initiative is garnering further support for radio ads in all departments.
Thinking of new ways to engage consumers has the knock-on effect that more agency creatives will look more favourably at a radio brief if it lands on their desk and help raise the medium's profile in the eyes of clients and agency executives.
"If you approach radio with the same due diligence as you would with TV ads, the results speak for themselves. It's about more than just creative innovation, using ideas which are hooked in reality," Blaxland says. "Injecting new levels of creativity into the process motivates everyone, from the copywriter to the client. And, of course, the consumer who buys the products."
To hear the ads featured above, please go to www.rab.co.uk
SFX: Lift muzak, then suddenly there is a powering down noise.
Dave speaks in the archetypal "Darth-Vader-with-a-sore-throat"
film trailer VO
Dave: Oh no ... the lift's stopped. (Panicking) We need help.
MV: Don't worry, I'm sure they won't be long.
Dave: But you don't see, I've got to get home tonight to watch The Last
Action Hero at 8 o'clock on Five, with the classic bit where
Arnie takes on his baddest baddies yet: a load of uzi-toting nuns
But instead I'm stuck in this lift with you and that strange old
lady over there who smells of potatoes.
VO: (James Bond Sean Connery era) Want two movies every night thish
MVO: Listen carefully.
What you can hear is the sound of my hands on the leather
steering wheel of an LS400.
Not particularly astonishing in itself.
Until you hear the sound of the electric window.
You see, this commercial was recorded for real inside an LS400
travelling at 70 miles an hour.
The quietest Lexus ever built.
Phone 0800 343434 for a hearing test.
Lexus. Luxury redefined.
Saatchi & Saatchi
NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM
SFX: General noise. Children playing. Traffic.
VO: (urgency, edge of fear) OK, let's go!
Go go go go!!!
Right, cross the square.
SFX: Roadworks. Banging. Traffic. Drilling.
VO: (shock, panic) What was that?
What was that?
Don't tread on that! Don't tread on that!
SFX: Louder traffic.
VO: (agitated, fear) He should be here.
He should be here.
SFX: Buses. Even louder traffic.
VO: (exhausted, out of breath) Two tanks.
The artillery right hand side.
It's a big brick building.
(fear, panic, urgency) Right, we're going, going in, I'm going
SFX: Gravel. Running.
FVO: Visit the National Army Museum.
Royal Hospital Road, Sloane Square Station.
Bringing the British soldier's life to life.
This article was first published on Campaign