The power and influence of TV commercials have waned, but they are still an amazing tool for advertisers.
Television commercials have lost power and effectiveness when compared to other forms of advertising. DVR technology allows end-users to scrub product advertising from their sets, subscription/streaming services, smart devices, and the rise of digital social media advertising. Television’s audience has shrunk, and the amount of time they spend watching commercials is even smaller. A good argument can be made that human attention spans have also diminished.
Television’s waning influence is a monumental shift for an advertising medium that invented “going viral” before the phrase existed. “Where’s the beef?” “Whaaazzzuuup?” “Fly the friendly skies.” “We bring good things to life.” ‘Have a Coke and a smile”. “Just do it.” These are just a few brand slogans that came to life in television commercials and earned iconic status in American popular culture.
A well-conceived and produced commercial can still have that kind of impact and should always be considered an option for the marketing mix, but the pathway is more arduous.
Every year during the Super Bowl, we see the top investments made in this medium in rapid succession in just three hours. There are usually mixed results, indicating that anything less than hitting all the right notes may lead to an underperforming campaign. If you plan to produce a commercial to promote your product and brand, you should follow a roadmap to mitigate some of TV advertising’s challenges and uncertainties.
Step 1: The Big Bold Idea
Get Don Draper on the line! Every successful commercial starts with a big, bold idea with the potential to mesmerize potential customers into action. The idea may be a character like AT&T’s Lily or Progressive Insurance’s cast of oddballs, a tag line like “King of Beers,” a spokesperson, or a character like that ubiquitous Gecko, and nothing beats a beloved celebrity (if you have the connections and cash).
The most amazing ideas are concepts that can play out in a television commercial with dramatic effectiveness while answering the consumer’s question, “Why should I choose you?” For campaigns with larger budgets, a commercial’s message can play out in a series of ads that retain the central brand message.
Insurance companies like Geico, State Farm, Progressive, Liberty Mutual, and Allstate have perfected the latter using every technique – characters, taglines, spokespeople (or animals), and celebrities – and are excellent examples of the progression of an idea from conception to commercial.
Step 2: The Budget
Concept to commercial can represent a significant investment. You will need a lot, and the top line will be the television air time you purchase during which your commercial will run. As for the rest, you must break down your total budget into three: Pre – Production, Production, and Post – Production.
Pre-production includes paying for a script and hiring a production company. Production includes all expenses related to the making of the commercial such as talent, equipment rental, location requirements, and camera crew. Post-production is editing, graphics, music, etc. This step takes some time and research. Once complete, you can proceed to find the best value for each stage of the process.
Step 3: Follow the Formula
Effective television commercials follow a familiar formula.
- Hook your viewer’s attention in the first five seconds.
- Tell the fantastic story of your must-have brand and your brand’s values.
- Give viewers all the reasons why they should choose your brand. Sing your praises.
- A call to action. Buy and love our product. Remember our brand forever.
An excellent example to consider is a TV commercial for a store with a sale during the holiday season. Each step of this formula has infinite possibilities, but each includes the Big Bold Idea, which ties them all together into a compelling brand message. At its end, the commercial calls the viewers to shop now before the sale is over or miss out on the most miraculous savings in human history.
Unfortunately, you can’t shoot a formula. You can only shoot a script.
Step 4: Write the Script
“If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage” is the universal golden rule of any film production, whether a Hollywood tentpole movie with one hundred-million-dollar budget or a local commercial produced on a shoestring budget. Without a well-written script that translates your Big Bold Idea into the language of film, you will not end up with an effective commercial.
For example, the product and message must come across if the watcher is listening to the commercial or viewing it, so what is said is just as important as what is seen.
The script is the blueprint the builders use to put up the building. If there are structural flaws in the blueprint, the structure will collapse. In commercial television terms, you’re going to buy time that is thirty seconds or two minutes.
Your script must be one of those exact lengths and follow other dramatic rules such as tone, pacing, set-ups, and payoffs. Writing the script is a specialized skill. Find someone with those skills to write your commercial.
Step 5: Hire a Production Company
Once the perfect idea turns into the ideal script, the script must now turn into a shooting script—time to hire a production company. A production company has the right talent to guide the creative process from page to stage. A production company’s roster of creative professionals includes directors, cinematographers, script specialists, lighting specialists, skilled artisans, set designers, and wardrobe, to name a few key players in the commercial shoot.
A production company has the expertise to elevate your Big Bold Idea into a Big Bold Commercial in ways you did not realize you could. For example, you are using a green screen to go places or a steady cam to produce a particular emotional effect.
Step 6: Storyboard
The way shots flow in film or video is called the production design. The script should have established the timing and pacing, and now it is the job of the campaign’s creators to collaborate with the commercial director and director of photography to determine the production design. The most effective and economical way to ensure that all stakeholders have an in-depth understanding of the final product is to storyboard a visual breakdown of each shot.
The shots add up to sequences. The sequences add up to acts. Acts add up to the whole script. To see a pictorial representation of what the viewer will see and hear at each stage of the thirty seconds or two minutes allows for instant changes and experimentation that are cost-prohibitive and time-consuming if you shot them on the fly during production.
Storyboarding the action gives your production team, actors (if applicable), animators (if applicable), and editors a common picture and creates the optimal conditions to create the best quality commercial with the greatest production value.
Step 7: Shoot the Footage
Time to step back and allow television commercial production professionals to do their jobs. It’s all fun and games until you have $500,000 worth of shots that have a boom mic shadow in the middle. Shooting a commercial is a significant expense.
A production must remain on schedule and on budget, which is two different things, but intricately linked. If you don’t stick to your production schedule, you may have cost overruns. Your shooting ratio – the number of takes you shoot per one shot used – should be as high as your budget allows.
It provides more options in the editing room and increases the likelihood that your final cut has the highest possible quality content. Be flexible as sometimes reality gets in the way of getting the exact shot you planned.
Production days are long and stressful, but with the right production company and supporting cast, the tangible material of your concept – the footage – will be a success. Once your production is “in the can,” the production period is over, and post-production begins.
Step 8: Editing
Editing raw footage into a cohesive dramatic structure is an art form that requires technical and creative talent. If you proceed according to this plan, your storyboard guides the editor during the crucial editing process.
However, even with an airtight production design, incredible raw footage, and a detailed storyboard, the editor is in creative control of the final cut. His or her expertise will give form and birth to the actual commercial.
Step 9: Ensure the Highest Possible Production Value
Production values mean your result is professional-grade quality regardless of your budget and resources. The technical aspects must be seamless. It must be thirty seconds or two minutes, or it will cut off when aired.
The audio and video must sync, and the audio and video must match. Syncing means that when somebody talks, the words come out of their mouths without delay. Matching means that what you hear corresponds to what you see.
This rule follows for any words, logos, slogans, etc., that may appear in the commercial. The audio mix must be in balance. Edits must be clean. Graphics and effects should integrate with the overall production design and align with current standards.
Step 10: Run your commercial
Buying time to run a TV commercial is expensive. Maximize a commercial’s effectiveness and impact through proper placement and frequency. A television commercial needs to reach the target audience at key times, ideally as many times as your budget allows.
For example, if the commercial is for a kid’s toy, it should run in the morning opposite a popular cartoon or other child’s program. Running that type of ad opposite “Sixty Minutes” or at midnight isn’t going to result in a favorable ROI.
There are notable exceptions to this rule. Apple’s iconic “1984” ad ran once. That commercial benefited from the ultimate placement, the Super Bowl, and a jaw-dropping budget (even by Super Bowl standards). However, in most cases, placement and frequency work in tandem.
An effective TV commercial does it all.
To conclude, the example of Apple’s “1984” is worth re-visiting because it only ran once. Steve Jobs had a big and bold idea. His concept was written, planned, and executed by professionals. The production value was flawless. In the first second of the commercial, the viewer was drawn in. The creative vision was unique and spellbinding.
The special effects were cutting edge for commercials at the time, while the editing and audio were produced at an advanced level typically reserved for award-winning films. At the end of the commercial, its message was clear, and its groundbreaking messenger, Apple Computer, Inc., was forever branded into the minds of its viewers. Your commercial can be the same.