At the beginning of 2005, Clear Channel Communications will lead the radio industry into a brave new world. For the first time ever, 30- and 15-second ads will be priced worth the money. Up until now, all radio ads were priced essentially the same, regardless of length, so everyone ran 60s, and you and I were forced to spend way too much time listening to ads. But now America's business owners are faced with a new, but very important, question: What length of ad generates the best ROI?

Shakespeare would argue for 15-second radio ads: "Brevity is the soul of wit." But W.C. Fields would suggest 60s: "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull." I agree with both.

When people ask, "What's the best length for a radio ad?" I always think of Abe Lincoln's answer when asked, "How long should a man's legs be?" His answer: Long enough to reach the ground. In other words, a radio ad should be exactly as long as it takes to say what needs to be said.

Use 60-second ads when:

  • Your message is complex. Better to write a 60 that makes your message clear than a 30 that leaves doubts and questions.
  • You need to include specific details to help persuade. Specifics are always more believable than generalities. Close the loophole. Answer the question lurking in the listener's mind. But don't bore your audience by answering questions no one was asking.
  • You're in a business category that's new and not easily understood. If you need to create the realization of need before you can sell your solution, it can easily take 60 seconds.
  • You need to "baffle them with bull." If you sell a generic commodity, and your strategy is for people to buy from you simply because they like you better, you're going to need a world-class creative team. These ads are, without question, the hardest of all ads to write. But they can also be the most entertaining. These are the times when your production people can shine like the sun. Inspire them but don't instruct them. Buy them food, give them praise, and remind them that they're geniuses and that yes, everyone misunderstands them but you. Production people live to create ads like these, but you've got to give them time, encouragement and freedom.

Use 30-second ads when:

  • Your product or service category is clearly understood and you're making an easy-to-understand offer. Say it plain. Say it straight. Eliminate all but the most essential adjectives and adverbs. Replace clichés and predictable phrases with unanticipated wording. Focus on verbs and use as many as possible. Make one point per ad, but make it powerfully in the script. Whatever you do, don't write a weak message and then try to compensate for it with powerful delivery (vocal inflection, dramatic music, sound effects.) The '70s are over.

Use 15-second ads when:

  • You have an incredibly powerful, simple message. Don't screw it up by blah, blah, blahing for 30 seconds when you can say it more powerfully in 15. Sadly, many ad writers fall into the trap described so eloquently by French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal: "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter." At least 25 percent of the 30-second ads on most stations would really work better as 15s. But most stations aren't willing to sell 15-second ads at a price that makes them attractive. Even more difficult is training ad writers how to uncover the vital, core message that can be powerfully communicated in 15 short seconds. Tight, powerful ads are hard to write, but definitely worth the effort.
  • You're in a business category in which no one advertises but you. When path dominance has been acquiesced to you by your competitors and simple name recognition will likely be enough to make customers think of your name when they need what you sell, don't be an idiot-buy 15-second ads and mentions.

Use mentions when:

  • You sell a commodity in a crowded marketplace and your strategy is to go for top-of-mind awareness.
  • You merely want to add additional frequency to a schedule that is delivering barely sufficient frequency of your 30- or 60-second message. But don't fool yourself by calculating a TAPSCAN reach and frequency analysis that lumps the mentions into the same schedule as the 30s and/or 60s. The schedule of the full-length ad must deliver sufficient frequency on its own. Mentions are merely gravy for these schedules. Like gravy, they're really not worth much when there's insufficient meat on the plate.

The most common mistake is allowing the ad budget to dictate the length of your ad. Never try to squeak by with 15s and mentions when you really need 30s and 60s. Reduce the number of people you're reaching instead of cutting the length of your ad, or buy a less expensive time of day or from a smaller station. Always make your message exactly as long as it needs to be.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.