The Power of Words

"Do you expect me to talk?"

“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

“Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond.  It may be your last.”   -Auric Goldfinger to James Bond, who is about to be cut in half by a laser beam.
Bond: “Well, you’re forgetting one thing. If I fail to report, 008 replaces me.”
Goldfinger: I trust he will be more successful.
Bond: Well, he knows what I know.
Goldfinger: You know nothing, Mr. Bond.
Bond: Operation Grand Slam, for instance.
Goldfinger: Two words you may have overheard, which cannot have the slightest significance to you or anyone in your organization.
Bond: Can you afford to take that chance?
Goldfinger: [thinks for a moment, then orders the laser switched off] You are quite right, Mr. Bond. You are worth more to me alive.  (Source: IMDB)

Words have consequences.  Well-chosen words can have powerful consequences.  They can build businesses and careers, destroy reputations, even save one’s life.

Few people understood the power of the spoken word as well as the late Tony Schwartz, who passed away three years ago (June 15, 2008) at 84 years of age.

My first exposure to Tony Schwartz’s work was as a young boy in Chicago watching, spellbound, his now-legendary “Daisy” TV spot, which was broadcast – just once – eight days before my twelfth birthday.  (That was in 1964, the same year Goldfinger exploded onto the big screen, making another indelible impression on an impressionable adolescent’s mind.)

I don’t recall the particular movie we were watching that night, but I will never forget that commercial.

Although the controversial spot was pulled from the air shortly after that solitary airing, there’s no doubt that it had achieved its intended purpose.  Arousing Americans’ fears of unleashing a nuclear holocaust, it effectively halted Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign in its tracks.

Without even mentioning his name.  (What a contrast to the heavy-handed mudslinging that passes for so much political advertising these days!)

Schwartz’s cause-related advertising campaigns again showed up on my radar screen in the late 1970′s, when I was working as a radio advertising sales manager and happened to run across an article from the September 1977 issue of Media Decisions.  According to the article, entitled “Media’s muscleman,” Schwartz was living across the street from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when the New York Board of Education voted 10-0 to close the institution.  Schwartz “walked over to the president’s office and asked, ‘You want to save your college?’”  He offered to donate his services free of charge if the school would raise the money for media and production costs.

While the college solicited donations, Schwartz researched New Yorkers’ attitudes toward the college, crime in the city, and local politicians.  Thus armed, he wrote a series of radio spots “that literally shamed the town fathers into saving the school.”

“Did you ever wish there was some way to check up on politicians’ campaign promises?  In their last campaign, Governor [Hugh] Carey and Mayor [Abraham] Beame promised to do something about crime.  And they are.  They’re closing John Jay College.”

“We picked them off one by one,” Schwartz chortled afterwards, explaining that each of the people involved in the closing of John Jay was publicly singled out.

Bottom line?

Four weeks after the original vote, the board voted 9-0 (with one abstention) to keep the college open.

In addition, awareness of John Jay shot up from less than 5% to over 80%.  Enrollments rose by 500 over the previous year’s 800.  And school officials [predicted] at $600,000 increase in the school’s budget.

All this on a total media expense of $20,000.  And all from a campaign on two local radio stations, WMCA and highbrow WQXR.

Why did Schwartz use radio?

“Because radio is the most invisible and emotional of all media.”

He points out: “People don’t remember radio as a source of information because they don’t consciously listen to it.  Rather they bathe in it and sit in it.  Just as we are not conscious of our breathing, we are not actively aware of radio-mediated sound in our environment.  Yet we are deeply involved with radio, and we are strongly affected by radio programming that allows us to participate.”

I had occasion to correspond with Tony Schwartz a few times in the years before his passing.  He signed copies of his books, The Responsive Chord and Media The Second God, for me; his handwriting was a little shaky, but not so his mind.

One of the techniques I’ve used successfully in coaching clients who voice their own commercials was developed decades ago by Tony Schwartz.  He was able to coax amazing “natural” performances from very young children (such as the girl in the “Daisy” television spot) simply by having them listen to him reading the lines, and then mimic his delivery.

Schwartz’s use of broadcast advertising to create social change was ahead of its time. Decades before the Internet would make possible such viral campaigns as “United Breaks Guitars” (over 10,000,000 views on You Tube as of two years ago), Schwartz was laying a guilt trip on parents who smoke for setting up their own children to become nicotine addicts.  Tired of having to watch out for the little brown land mines that littered the sidewalks of his New York neighborhood, he went after dog owners who refused to clean up after their pets*:

“The next time you see someone allowing their dog to ‘go’ on the sidewalk…don’t get mad at them.  Feel sorry for them.  Imagine.  This big person can’t even train his little dog.  Why, it’s the other way around.  The dog has trained him.  So don’t get too upset.  He really should be pitied.  You can’t tell which end of the leash the master is on.”

That particular campaign came to mind recently, when the president of the local garbage disposal company asked me to write a commercial to address the problem they were having on certain collection routes in the university district, where some residents were having a seemingly difficult time figuring out how properly to dispose of their trash.  I briefly envisioned the brilliant Bob Landers (the voice of choice for many of Tony Schwartz’s productions) behind the microphone, but it was the client himself who voiced the spot:   It may be some time before the campaign can be evaluated on the basis of behavioral change, but if feedback from the public is any indication, the spot certainly made an impression.

What are you saying about your business these days?  Are you choosing your words carefully?  Deliberately?

More to the point: as though your business depended on them?

Because, well, it does.

*Our fair City has been waging its own campaign to motivate dog owners to pick up after their pets.  Since Pullman’s mayor also happens to have of the most recognizable voices in the community, I enlisted him in our effort to raise awareness of the City’s efforts to curb the problem.  Here’s his spot and one other from this ongoing campaign.

About rodspots

40-year Radio Advertising Sales Professional and award-winning ad writer. Creator of Powerful Radio Advertising Solutions for Small Business.
This entry was posted in Advertising (General), Branding, Casting Talent, Client-voiced commercials, Communication, Professional Services Advertising, Radio Advertising, Radio Commercials, Radio Copywriting, Radio Production, Sales & Marketing, Storytelling, Voice Acting, Voiceover and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Power of Words

  1. Pingback: David Ogilvy on the Superiority of Radio | RodSpots – Lessons from the Streets, the Studio, and the Study – by Rod Schwartz

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