There is more media out there than ever before. As a result, people are more distracted than ever before. I’ve talked before in passing about reaching the passive audience. I thought we’d look at this concept in a little more detail.

My first love is radio, so I often look at advertising from that perspective. Of course most of the principles I’ll be describing can be applied to virtually all media.

I’ve heard people describe radio, television, and internet as being “active media”. While I do agree with this, people tend to forget that while the conveyance for the message itself may be active, its audience often absorbs it in a very passive way.

In the golden age of radio, much of its audience was actively listening. It was very common for families to gather around the radio to hear the latest radio dramas. Kind of hard to picture now.

These days, it’s not just radio that has a passive audience. More and more, media is being pushed into the background of people’s lives. It’s on while people are doing other things. They’re driving. They’re at work. They’re cooking.

This isn’t a new thing, but despite the change in people’s habits, writers and producers still create ads with an active audience in mind. They produce under the assumption that the audience is hanging off their every word, and quite frankly, they’re not.

This is in no way a disadvantage. It’s just something that needs to be understood in order to craft an effective ad.

So how do we reach a passive audience?

Less is More

This is a mistake that’s made in pretty much all advertising media. People think that they’re getting the most from their advertising dollars if they cram as much info as they can into their ad. This can sometimes work in print where the reader/viewer can scan the information at their leisure, but in most cases, you’re just making your ad easier to ignore. Details are for your website. Your ad is there to raise awareness, build a brand, and often to draw traffic to said website depending on the nature of your business.

Most media have a finite amount of time to get a message across. I often like to use a billboard as an example. If you’re driving down a busy street, how much time do you have to glean the message? Let’s postulate three seconds. Is it enough? If not, you probably have too much information.

I’m a big believer in the ‘one spot-one thought’ axiom. Ask your audience to focus on one clear and concise direction to follow. Typically, the more directions you give someone, the less likely they are to follow them. Instead, give them a straight and clear path. A clear and concise message will always win out over a bombardment of information.

Avoid Ad-Speak

Ads in all advertising media are replete with words and phrases that you would never use in real life. Here are a few examples of ad-speak:

-friendly knowledgeable staff
-convenient location
-spring into savings
-two locations to serve you better
-guaranteed (when there’s no actual guarantee)

These kinds of phrases build a wall between you and your audience. Instead of making an attempt to communicate and connect with your audience, thus drawing them in, you push them away with unnatural and often meaningless and/or esoteric language.

Furthermore, these kinds of phrases make your ad easier to ignore. Apart from lacking meaning, they’re used in countless other ads. They’re called clichés for a reason. Instead of standing out and communicating, you just become part of the noise that they’ve already trained themselves to ignore.

Audio Branding

Yes, the commercial probably has music in the background. I’m talking about using music to brand your business, perhaps with a jingle. Jingles aren’t for everyone, but with enough frequency, they’re an extremely effective branding tool, especially in radio. Jingles are heard regardless of whether or not the audience is actively or passively participating. They’re also remembered long after the commercial is over. It’s like getting free commercials all day in someone’s head.

An alternative to jingles is an audio logo. I’ve also heard them called a sounder. They probably have many other names. They’re basically a jingle where the singing is replaced with some sort of instrumental musical cue. Well known examples include Duracell, Rogers, Intel, and McDonald’s. Yes, I realize this is a little self-serving since I produce these products, but I also believe these products. That’s why I make them and write about them.

Auditory branding is especially important in radio. Your visual brand includes consistent logos, colours, symbols,  and even fonts. None of that carries over to your radio ad. You need some sort of consistent element to establish your audio brand, whether it’s music, a jingle, voice, or even a sound effect. If you’ve done it right, over time people will know it’s your ad without even paying attention to it.

Go Against Expectations

Commercials can get so formulaic that you can almost predict what they’re going to say next. For more on this, try Dan O’Day’s Bad Commercial Generator. Being predictable just makes your ad (again) easier to ignore. It becomes part of the noise that people are already so good at tuning out.

Instead, do or say something unexpected. You don’t necessarily need to shock them either. It can be very subtle. Just make sure it’s enough to break the through the noise – something that will break the rhythm of the commercial set.

I’ll give you a very simple example. We recently produced an ad for a graphic design company. Instead of talking about the quality of their work, we told the audience that they’ve already seen the work since it’s all over town. Then we invited them to go to the website to see.