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Sizzling Sound Bites: Select the Best (Continued)

This lesson is a part of an audio course Sizzling Sound Bites by Marcia Yudkin

Length. taglines rarely have more than seven words. For radio or TV, sound bites should last no longer than 15 seconds. That's actually pretty long. FedEx's slogan, "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," is about as long as advertising slogans go, and it takes just 5 seconds to say. Be crisp! Be quick!

Resonance. Use the "Who cares?" test on each message nugget on your shortlist. A successful sound bite elicits an emotional response from the audience. Delta once used "We get you there," which fails this test. "Duh. What else would you expect from an airline? Another dud is "The power of AND," which apparently is the motto for a branch of the University of Wisconsin. Since when did the word "and" have any oompf? I don't have a clue what they are talking about, and the motto doesn't motivate me to want to find out.

Power or force. Media coaches who prepare politicians and corporate executives for speeches and on-air interviews note that absolutist, attacking statements are more likely to get rebroadcast and have an impact. You can find this provocative quality in some best-selling nonfiction books, also, such as Differentiate or Die and Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog. Just make sure that the absolutist idea is something you're willing and able to stand by.

Shock value. In a 1984 campaign debate, Ronald Reagan defused a loaded issue with the sound bite, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." As with the punch line of a successful joke, the impact comes from delaying the twist until the very end. A book title can deliver a jolt, too, as with If You Want To Look 10 Years Younger, Throw Away Your Skin Care or The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

A shocking sound bite should offer something unexpected, though, and – for nearly all situations – not offensive. Heineken beer once launched ads that pictured an opened bottle of Heineken Light and a half-filled glass with the line, "Sometimes, lighter is better." Many Americans felt that sentiment came across as racist. Reebok once put out an ad suggesting, "Cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout." On social media, people complained that this showed a disrespectful attitude toward women, and the campaign was killed.

Distinctiveness. Unless you're going for head-to-head aggressiveness, your sound bite should not sound like any of your competitors'. This includes rhythm as well as wording. As I noted earlier, if your number-one competitor has branded itself with "Experience. Expertise. Excellence." and you come out with "Service. Strategy. Success.," the market will perceive you as a copycat.

Likewise, do not borrow a line that's become identified with a particular company, even if you're in a different business. When other companies use the line, "Membership has its privileges," which American Express originated, for example, they simply sound derivative and uninspired.

Level of diction. Many bloggers have said H&R Block's tagline, "When you got Block, you got people," makes them cringe. It's ungrammatical and inappropriate, so in a firm that you hope would care about accuracy. On the other hand, the classic ungrammatical cigarette slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" worked because consumers have a more palsy-walsy relationship with what they smoke. You certainly wouldn't want English-teacher stuffiness in messaging for a bar, a T-shirt brand, or carpenter tools.

Overtones. It's always nice when there's a wordplay that gives your slogan double or triple meanings. For this to be effective, the primary meaning should be literally true and appropriate, and the additional meaning or meanings should fit as well.

For instance, a great tagline for a shoe company specializing in footwear for nurses would be "in step with America's nurses" as it works on two levels. On the other hand, a Ford dealer's slogan "We put people in front of cars" was a howler because the metaphorical meaning applied, but the literal meaning did not.

Here's an example to show you how tricky such overtones can be. In my research for this course, I ran across a tagline that went something like "Enjoy our world-famous unbelievable guarantee!" As with the Ford dealer's slogan, the looser meaning works ("unbelievable" as "great"), but when you take the word "unbelievable" literally, you get a very disreputable implication.

Longevity. How well might a particular branding statement age? Most of us no longer understand the 1840 campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," but that's okay because its purpose was just to sway voters that year. If you're trying to create something that can last, watch out for popular culture references and competitive advantages you might need to change in a year or two.

Legality. Sound bites can run afoul of the law in quite a number of ways. They can slander or libel a competitor. They can infringe on copyrights or trademarks. They can make unsupportable claims or even set the stage for a lawsuit over negligence, as in the case of nearly $83 million in settlements Domino's pizza paid out in 1992 and 1993 because of its 30-minute delivery guarantee. So if you have deep pockets that might tempt someone to sue, have your sound bites checked by legal eagles.

Believability. Beware of making a boast in your sound bite that your audience will not believe. Note that something can be both true and unbelievable. You may actually have a 100% success rate, but stating it as a 96.7% success rate is far more likely to persuade people.

Can you stand behind it? Think how awful it would be for FedEx to have poured millions into their slogan, "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," and then backtrack to "Oh, we didn't mean that as a money-back guarantee!" If your sound bite is stated as a promise, both customers and the general public may hold you to it. So promise only what you're certain you can deliver.

That's it! Twenty-two criteria. In the next lesson, we'll apply all of these considerations to ten real-life sound bites.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin