The anatomy of radio ads: radio advertising in a digital age

The anatomy of radio ads: radio advertising in a digital age

Diego Fontana Published on 10/28/2020

Radio advertising: an introduction

Presumably more or less everyone knows what a radio ad is, at least broadly speaking. In this article we will examine the topic from a professional angle, for those of you thinking of making use of this medium in your marketing, and explore how the digital era has affected the production of radio adverts, if at all.

Features and structure of a radio ad

First off, it’s worth saying that people often underestimate the potential of radio advertising, particularly through local broadcasters. It struggles to shake off a reputation for being the ‘poor cousin’ of TV advertising, lacking the extraordinary visual opportunities offered by screens, and so limited to informing listeners about the characteristics of a particular product.

Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth: the lack of a visual component offers a challenge that feeds creativity and improves the quality of the end product. The aim, don’t forget, is to make people listen. And to make people listen you need to find new, surprising and unpredictable ways to grab listeners’ attention, either using humour or by creating something engaging and moving. A range of models have taken shape over the years, and these provide a good starting point, to avoid sitting with a blank sheet of paper when trying to come up with ideas. To keep things simple, here are three – let’s go through them together.


This is a classic structure for a radio ad. The first section seeks to pique the listener’s curiosity with a creative narrative, describing an unusual, ironic or paradoxical situation, or perhaps something deadly serious or epic in nature. The aim is to capture the public’s attention, and to make them listen. Then the radio ad finishes with a spokesperson for the company, who represents the brand and provides the reasoning to support the promises made in the first section. It may be useful to compare it to the structure of a printed press campaign: most of the space is dedicated to the creative message, with a footer that denotes the brand and the characteristics of the service being offered.

An amusing Bavaria Fake Voices radio ad:

An advert (in French) for second-hand vehicles from Citroen Select Hiver:


This is another widely used format, very common in radio advertising. It is not too dissimilar from the previous structure, but it leaves a final few seconds for an ending, known in the business as a ‘coda‘. The coda returns to the creative section, for example with a joke recalling the features of the product, and helps to leave the listener with a strong memory. Witty or unexpected phrases are often used, which raise a smile and so make the advert harder to forget.

The MiciAmici ad (in Italian): not a true coda, but a final miaow:


You can also create radio adverts with no clear distinction between the creative and corporate components. These are perhaps the hardest to produce, but they can end up being the most interesting for listeners: the product information is distributed within the message, without weighing it down. Indeed, sometimes this information becomes the creative cornerstone of the entire ad. The radio advert for Aspirin is a good example of this.

The Aspirin ad:

Time: an issue or a challenge?

The lack of visuals is not the only restriction you have to face – there’s also the time aspect. In Europe, radio adverts have very precise lengths. Typically, adverts in the UK last 30 seconds, but you also get shorter ads, sometimes a summarised version of the main 30-second format. Longer slots of up to 60 seconds are also reasonably common in the UK and America. In general, shorter slots of 10 or 20 seconds are usually only purchased to reveal who is sponsoring a certain piece of content. You know the type of thing: ‘This programme is presented by…’ And yes, in case you were wondering, the lengths are set in stone: an advert cannot last 31 or even 30.5 seconds – it will inevitably be cut off mid-sentence when it is broadcast.

There is definitely another important lesson here: one of the main challenges when creating radio advertising is good time management, in other words finding a good balance between the components that grab listeners’ attention and the more informative sections that back up the initial promises made about the product or service. It is best to give the words breathing space, rather than cramming as much as possible into the advert, like the boot of your car when you’re setting off on holiday. Using too many words risks creating something unpleasant to listen to, and you are  unlikely to capture the interest of your listeners because the speakers won’t have the time they need to get the intended meaning of the words across and employ the required comic timing.

Radio advertising in a digital age: from networks to social media

The digital era has seen the arrival of new forms of hybridisation across radio, internet and social media. For example, many broadcasters also have a Facebook page, and they invite listeners to interact in real time on their social channels during various programmes. There are also now video broadcasts, which broaden the horizons of a broadcaster, not to mention the options provided by podcasts, which are gaining more traction as a way of enjoying audio content with every passing day.

However, the impact of these changes has not rung the death knell for the radio ad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, every so often we hear of examples of radio advertising that, in line with the landscape we’ve just described, expand the horizons of the medium and take things one step further: becoming video content, for example, or even a genuine media event.

An Italian radio advert for the supermarket Coop becomes a media event dedicated to sustainability:

Overall, however, it’s safe to say that the structure of radio adverts hasn’t changed all that much. Why? It’s probably due to radio’s character: always warmer, more informal and interactive and less detached than television, radio seems in some ways to have anticipated many of the characteristics we now associate with social media. It has always been a very direct medium, with many programmes based on active participation from the public, initially though texts and phone calls, and now also through platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. This informal, authentic and easily accessible approach is perhaps the real secret behind radio’s longevity and survival in the digital age: these characteristics sit together well with the key weapons employed by social networks. And this is why radio ads, living fossils in a marketing 4.0 age, still seem to be an effective way to get through to the public, especially – it goes without saying – if they are put together well.

A selection of five radio adverts that push the boundaries of the medium:

Going beyond radio ads: new forms of business communication

It would be remiss of us to finish our brief foray into the world of radio advertising in the digital age without looking at Spotify, which could perhaps be considered a genuine competitor to radio. This platform sometimes hosts communication concepts that go beyond the classic advert form, becoming something more variable and harder to categorise. This project by McDonalds in partnership with Spotify is a genuine piece of cross-media marketing, combining reality, press release and audio. How did it turn out? Judge for yourselves.

An interesting project from McDonalds, in partnership with Spotify: