Ad Breakdown: Kiss FM’s “He’s listening to Kiss 100FM”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Kiss 100FM tube ad

How many times have you heard “the medium is the message“? Probably a lot. It’s a well-known line from Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan. And unlike a lot of vague marketing/advertising/communication statements, this one (I think) has some substance.


To reframe it, think of it this way: how you deliver your advertising message sometimes says more than the message itself.

So if you aren’t already aware of how potent great media planning can be, let this be the slap around the face you need.

Because, as you’ll see with today’s ad, if you get the medium right, the message comes alive. Quite literally.

The impacts of your medium choice

Okay, so before I share the ad (which you’ve probably already seen anyway), I want to touch on why choosing the right advertising medium is so important.

…and the implications of getting it wrong.

In a nutshell, the medium affects you in two main ways:

  • By adding depth to your message
  • By signalling your commitment to your business

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Changing perceptions

In the mind of your audience, your brand is a collection of thoughts, feelings and associations. Over time, with effective advertising, they solidify. Or at least they should if you want to come to mind before others. 

So where your audience sees your ad, not only shapes their perception of the ad but also shapes their perception of you. Positively and negatively.

Jon Maxim explains it well:

“For me, it means ‘every medium has a personality’. Every medium has strengths and weaknesses. Characteristics we can harness to enhance our message.”

In other words, every medium has a different feel to it. 

And to prove it, think, how do you feel about banner ads? And how do they compare to ads in fancy magazines? Or even Piccadilly Circus?

And then how differently would you feel about a business that advertises in a local shop vs the Superbowl? What does their media choice say about them?

Now, sure, there are a load of rational answers. But, thanks to evolution, the real answer sits in our subconscious.


The ‘perceived cost’ of choosing any medium indicates your commitment to your business – and hence, your trustworthiness. If you’re prepared to sacrifice (a lot of money) in the short term, it suggests to your audience that you’re ‘in it for the long run’ – and you can be trusted to do business with.

These signals rub off onto your brand. And mould your audience’s propensity to buy.

Of course, signalling isn’t the only factor at play. But it can lay some favourable foundations for the future.

(It’s also worth remembering that sometimes not being seen anywhere says a lot about your brand too)

Getting the right eyes

Of course, when picking an advertising medium, you also have to consider your target audience. AKA: are they actually going to see your ads?

Because there’s no use advertising in places where you get the wrong eyes on you. Or insufficient.

Fortunately, today’s ad is in a high-exposure, high-dwell-time medium.

So it’s going to get long view times from a large range of people – like local workers, affluent consumers, students, tourists, families and more.

And the ad’s medium isn’t so much about costly signalling (although there is some)… it’s more about the depth it adds to the message.

For those that don’t recognise the background, it’s the London Underground. And that’s important to keep in mind.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at the ad.

And here it is in context.

The ad

It was written by Tom Carty, art directed by Walter Campbell and came during their time at BBDO in 1991. The client was Kiss FM.

There were ads across multiple platforms – and email subscribers got to see some of them.

But this one, I like. It’s funny.

It’s worth noting that the man photographed was hired – along with other youngsters – to sing along and create the intended impression.

But it would also happen by chance, especially when people are constantly getting on and off the tube. I’ll touch on these ‘moments of magic’ later.

What I also particularly like about this ad is that it isn’t really about the music. It’s not pushing a specific genre or artist. If it did, the ad would risk polarising certain people – especially in a medium with such broad appeal. 

So when everyone has their own tastes and preferences, and Kiss FM plays a wide range of music, how do you connect them?

You play into an unknown. 

For example, you don’t know what the man is listening to. So by never saying, the ad lets the reader colour it themself. He’s listening to whatever you want him to listen to. 

And with that, you see the more emotional ‘outcome’ of the music. This is what everyone can relate to – regardless of music choice. 

Well-remembered. Easily forgotten.

Okay, so if we just overlook the fact the shot was staged, and picture it in the real world, we get to look at some advertising magic.

With the uptake of walkman radios, a lot of people were walking around London with earphones in. And as I just touched on, you, naturally, have no idea what people are listening to. 

This creates an opportunity to work with an unknown – which the creatives do by playing with chance. 

As we know, people will be up and down, frequently getting on and off the tube all day. And every time someone sits beneath the ad, there’s an opportunity for this ad to work. 

If someone sits beneath the ad without earphones, the ad makes no sense – and the message ‘fails’.

But if someone sits beneath it with earphones, then the message makes sense – and the message ‘succeeds’.

(And if they’re happy, even better.)

You could argue a sad listener would still have a net positive impact because it still creates emotion and, in turn, helps with mental availability. Sure, it’s not as impactful as a positive emotion, but it’s better than none.

What’s more, when the situation is ‘successful’, the sheer unlikelihood of it all falling into place at the right time creates a sense of uniqueness.

And I’d like to think the ‘viewer’ appreciates just how rare – or lucky – that is. For the people that witness that, the message really sticks.

But, thanks to the nature of advertising, when it’s unsuccessful, people quickly move on.

It’s a win-win.

Get it wrong, and people forget. Get it right, and they’ll remember it for years.

Did Bernbach get it wrong?

Bernbach was the first to put an art director and copywriter in a room together. Maybe he should have added a media planner too.

As we know, every great ad has a ‘penny drop’ moment. And our ad today relies on the real world to provide it. 

If you take this ad out of the medium, it makes no sense. It’s dud. 

But in it, it comes alive. It involves real people. It adds another layer to your ‘connection’ with Kiss FM.

And a great media planner makes these opportunities more likely. They add another perspective to the ‘idea’ phase. They see things differently. And present ideas in different ways to an art director or copywriter. 

Now try this

Every couple of weeks or so you can get an ad breakdown in your inbox (from me). It’s completely free and only takes a few seconds to sign up.

For each breakdown, I’ll give you subscriber-only insights and content you won’t find anywhere else. 

Advertising lovers from around the world are already in. Come join them. I’d love to have you there.

If you’d like to sign up and get ad insights sent straight to your inbox, click here.

Or if you want to read some others, try these:

This one from Kellogg’s made me laugh. As did this one from Pirelli.

Or, if you want one that makes you think a bit, try this from Fisher-Price. It’s a classic.

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