In our continuing conversation about sales, I was taken by a brief article last week in Radio Info. They reported that Kroger’s ad agency announced that they will not buy time on radio stations that use “commercial-free” as a marketing device to advertise their grocery stores. There have subsequently been a number of comments – pro and con – that have both defended and castigated this tactic.
There is no apparent reason why this policy is in effect, but based on past experience, the reasoning most likely revolves around Kroger’s notion that promoting commercial-free in some way signifies that all advertising is somehow devalued.
What this alleged edict truly implies, however, is that Kroger and its agency are less focused on results, and instead wish to dictate how programmers should create their products and aggregate audiences.
It brought to mind a true story that I sadly must convey to you. Back in the very early ‘80s, I returned to WRIF in Detroit to help energize a station that had been getting pummeled in the ratings by Doubleday’s WLLZ – which ironically utilized “commercial-free” programming as a key component of its upstart campaign.
In thinking about how to awaken a sleeping giant, I decided on a term that was becoming ubiquitous on the streets – “Kickass” – as a way to draw some much needed attention to WRIF. (A handful of other stations around the country were experimenting with it, too.)
At that time, we had discovered that the “racetrack” shape of WRIF’s storied logo communicated the brand – without even including its call letters. That was a key reason why the famous “BABY!” bumper stickers, coined by afternoon drive legend Arthur Penhallow, had become so popular.
So the plan was to produce “Kickass” stickers and outdoor advertising, along with on-air reinforcement, as a statement about WRIF’s spirit and attitude with the goal to get back on top of the ratings heap and reassert the station’s former glory.
And to make sure I had all ends covered, I met with station and sales management to be sure we were all on the same page. Of course, I was reassured that even with the possibility of advertiser backlash, we were all in this together and that “Kickass” was a campaign that we believed in and would defend. After all, we wanted to get back on top.
But just a week or two into the campaign, our TV sister station, Channel 7, threw a client party where scores of advertising mavens and clients were in attendance right on our collective front lawn. And as I was finishing up the next day’s programming log, one of our reps came to my office door accompanied by a prominent buyer from one of Detroit’s biggest ad agencies. I was told that we were going to have a quick conversation about my programming plans as the station’s new PD.
The chat quickly moved from friendly to confrontational as the buyer asked me what I was trying to accomplish with “that campaign.” And as I explained the premise behind “Kickass” and how it was already resonating with our 18-34 demographic, she emphatically told me that as long as WRIF used “that word” in its marketing and on the air, her entire account list (and it was huge) would be pulled from our air.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next. (However, you can still buy a Kickass sticker on eBay, and I have several in a box in my basement.)
In an effort to dictate WRIF’s programming, this buyer totally missed out on the station’s ability and credibility to deliver an important audience to her clients.
A modern-day example is Jersey Shore. Now if you watch any episode of this show, you’ll find all sorts of behavior that might be construed as offensive from language, sexist behavior, and alcohol abuse and glorification. But as Forbes recently pointed out, “Considering its popularity, the show becomes a material driver of MTV’s success. Its cast members such as Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Paul “Pauly D” DelVecchio and Jenni “Jwoww” Farley attract a huge following and many of them have secured book deals and are paid generously to promote events. The cast also hosted MTV’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Time Square where they led a crowd of viewers in setting a Guinness Book World Record for fist pumping.
This sort of media attention brings in viewers, strengthens the show’s following and generates advertising potential. MTV can earn higher ad revenues from better ad pricing and grow its viewership – both of which will help (Viacom) stock.”
And more evidence of Jersey’s Shore’s success – despite the aberrant behavior – comes from travel and tourism increases during this past summer. According to Maria Maruca, executive director of the Seaside Heights Business Improvement District, revenue for the beach town was up 20% during the season, far outpacing similar ocean side communities. As Maruca notes, “We still have a golden opportunity to showcase Seaside Heights to all the visitors that are coming because of the show…(It) has offered us the marketing reach that we could never afford on our own.” And that’s why Kroger’s apparent decision to call the shots here by banning stations that use essentially the same type of tactic that often drives to their stores – discounts, coupons, gimmicks, and other devices designed to energize customers.
“Commercial-free” isn’t a statement about radio’s stance on advertising any more than “buy one get one free” denigrates canned peaches. But when account managers and buyers use their power to try to influence and even dictate programming, no one is served.
Jersey Shore is no more politically correct today than “Kickass” was back in the early ‘80s. But it speaks to the language, lifestyle, and pop culture sensibilities of a generation. And in the process, it allows advertisers to participate in the experience.
Radio’s job is to use the power of its brands to move product and build advertiser reputation and share. As a medium, we have a great deal to offer in terms of programming diversity, talent, music choice, and ubiquity. One of radio’s great strengths is its wide range of choice, appealing to an array of demographics, psychographics, and taste.
A continuing theme in this blog is for radio to do a better job of telling its story.
And during these challenging times, a kickass attitude wouldn’t hurt either.