The Fine Art of Advertising: A Q&A with Payne Ratner

Written By

SMI Staff

Published On

Monday, Aug 19

Payne Ratner is a copywriter for Strategic Media, Inc. With 25 years of ad writing experience, he has written for print, television, and radio, and has worked with national brands including Vistaprint, eHarmony, and Shari’s Berries. He is also a fiction writer, playwright, and actor. He holds an MFA in Fiction from the Stonecoast M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program and was the winner of The New Guard’s Machigonne Fiction Contest. His award-winning plays have been produced in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Portland, Maine. I sat down with him to talk about how his fine arts background enables him to create more effective ads.

Young man and older man in period dress on a stage

How did you get started in advertising?

I majored in English Literature so when I got out of college I naturally became a bartender. The owner of an advertising agency, who was doing in-depth research on single-malt scotch whiskey one night, needed someone to write some radio ads and heard that I wrote fiction and plays. He liked what I did and hired me as his copywriter. I wrote for print, television, radio. When I left there I went to a larger agency in Wichita, Kansas. When that agency eventually folded I got a job with a very progressive radio station and started writing radio ads and fell in love with the medium. Later I worked writing television commercials for years, but my first love has always been radio.

I know you are also an actor and have an MFA. Can you tell me about your non-advertising creative background?

I’ve always wanted to write, and writing short stories–and eventually novels–seemed the only option. But when I was in college someone talked me into auditioning for a play. Acting felt really right, easy and tremendously fun. It opened me up to the whole new medium of theater. A few years of acting and I began to try my hand at writing my own plays.

How does your experience as an actor inform your ad writing?

As an actor you have to be real. You can’t fake your feelings on stage. The audience knows what’s true. I think, writing ads, you have to find the part of you that honestly relates to the product in a positive, truthful way and write from that perspective.

How does your playwriting background help you write effective ads?

Because plays are all dialogue, those kinds of ads are the most fun to write. But two people talking isn’t enough to hold anyone’s attention. You learn this in theater. No audience gives a hoot about people talking unless there’s conflict. Unless they’re fighting for something. And all ads, just like theater, must have an element of conflict. And then resolution. But, as in theater, conflict alone isn’t the answer. Raw conflict–a cage fight or a cat fight–holds your attention for awhile but it doesn’t capture your heart. The more the audience can relate to the conflict, identify with the struggle, the more involved they’ll be. A way of thinking of conflict is problem/solution. A problem is identified that the listener really feels, on some level, is an issue in his or her life. Then the product is the solution. But it has to be a real problem and the product a true solution. Otherwise, sooner or later, you lose the audience. Honesty matters.

How do you approach writing an ad?

Ideally, it’s by learning about the product and its benefits and then really trying to find the most relevant problem the product solves. There may be many benefits the product offers, but the goal is to find the one problem that is most common to all of us, find a way to reveal that problem to the listener in an empathic way, and then show how the product can “solve” the problem.

What makes an ad effective?

The same thing that makes an effective movie, poem, story, play, etc. When a listener feels personally involved. When his or her “issue” is revealed—whether it’s searching for the right life insurance or acne treatment—and a resolution is fought for and finally realized.

How is writing for radio different than writing for TV?

It takes an enormous budget to build a dragon, have it fly over a castle, land at a car dealership and sell a car on TV. With radio you can do the same thing for pennies. Theater of the mind.

What advice do you have for budding copywriters looking to improve their work?

It’s really the advice I was given and that informs much of what I’ve written here. Find the emotional center of the problem, the “pain point,” feel what that means in yourself and in that way you’ll find the most specific solution that the product or service resolves. 

For more info on copywriting best practices, please see SMI’s blog post, “The Top Ten Keys to Creating Great Radio Ads,” to which Payne contributed.

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