Payne Ratner has been writing ads for 30 years. Outside of work, he is a playwright and fiction writer who was recently named a finalist in the Machigonne Fiction Contest. In this brief interview, I pick Payne’s brain about his literary background and how it helps him craft winning radio ads.
Can you tell me a little about your award-winning short story, “Eat Jimmy”? What is it about, and where did you get the idea for it?
I have no idea where I got the idea. I never do. I once bought a small can of ideas at the grocery store but, when I opened it at home, it was empty. The story is a kind of fable/fairytale/fantasy/faintly futuristic/mythological/who-knows-what tale about a mother who, in order to save her life, must literally eat her child. The story is about the mother and the son trying to come to grips with this fact. It also brings in an important (to me) Christian element. It will be published in early winter of 2022.
So you write fiction, plays, and ads. Which came first? Can you tell me about how you came to each of these very different forms of writing?
I started with short stories when I was young. In college a friend coaxed me into auditioning for a play. I discovered I had a talent for acting and a tremendous love of theatre. I started trying to write plays. Writing can be a lonely business, but knowing I was writing for the stage, that the characters on the paper would eventually become real people I could interact with, and actually give me suggestions about the writing, made writing plays more exciting and writing itself (seem) less lonely. As for ads, I was bartending and a man who had just started an ad agency needed someone to write some quick commercials. He heard that I liked to write and asked me to help him out. He later hired me, and that’s how I ended up in advertising.
How does your background in fiction and playwriting inform your ad writing?
As for ad writing, I love writing for radio most of all. Because, as they say, it can be “theatre of the mind”. In television, what would take a massive budget, actors, make-up, costumes, special effects, etc. can be accomplished in radio for a couple bucks, some voice actors in sweatpants and a microphone. And, of course, in radio there’s always the opportunity to write dialogue.
Where do you get ideas for the ads you write?
I think, “What is the most relatable problem this client’s product would solve?” Then I try to figure out a way to illustrate the problem and the solution. To show the problem and solution in a way that touches the listener’s emotions, not just simply state “here’s the problem, here’s the solution”.
What elements of fiction do you think are most applicable to ad writing?
Trying to be truthful and make things up at the same time.
Has writing ads made you a better fiction writer? Why or why not?
Maybe staying aware of how an audience will hear and respond to your ad (an ad has to be relatable) keeps me more aware of how a reader will respond to my writing. Maybe. On the other hand, in fiction, it’s nice to have the bit taken out of the mouth, the saddle pulled off and be released into a whole pasture free to kick about and play without any restraints.
What makes a successful radio ad, from a creative standpoint?
If a product is genuinely helpful to people, if the spot touches the emotions and leads people to discover something that improves their lives, that’s a successful ad. It begins and ends with sincerity.
Can you tell me about some of the ads you’ve written that you’re most proud of? What made them great?
That’s a tough one. The ads I think are great, may not be considered great ads from a response standpoint. The ones I love, that make me laugh or get a little misty-eyed, sometimes don’t do as well as ads that follow a more tried-and-true formula. One ad I liked was a popcorn kernel which had been left in the seat of someone’s hot car. The kernel is speaking more and more frantically about the benefits of tinted windows (for cooling). The spot ended with a “POP”. I don’t know whether it sold any tinted windows.