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Do's and Don'ts in TV Ads

And ways to make commercials better.

by Dear Jon
August 23, 2005

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Do's and Don'ts in TV Ads

Dear Jon,

I have great idea for a TV commercial. What steps do I need to take? 

Dear Teac,
There has been a dearth of quality television commercials ever since the NASDAQ crashed following the Rams versus Titans Superbowl in 2000.
We have since been treated to an escalating Miller® versus Budweiser® spoof-off featuring campaign stump speeches and football referees. Whoever these marketing managers are, what makes them think beer drinkers want to see more of either political candidates or football referees?  These commercials have served to make me a drinker of imports and local brews.
The best commercials are for products that people want to buy and do not need a commercial to persuade them. This is why Coca-Cola® could get in step with the folk music peace-love movement of a generation ago and create the hit "I'd like to Teach the World to Sing." The product is cheap and people want it anyway, so might as well have a commercial with people joining hands and singing by candlelight. Pepsico® thought they had to persuade people to drink their product instead, and introduced all kinds of obnoxious "negative ads" with taste tests and all that business. I became an RC® fan because they had a Country-western jingle when I was a kid growing up in Nebraska.
The worst commercials are for products that people do not want to buy but must. So the infamous Chinese American owner of a laundromat presented the benefits of a particular  detergent in the worst and one of the most over-played commercials of the 1970'. Today, people do not want but must buy products to treat their indigestion, constipation, or arthritis. The worst commercials are those that feature animations of the lower intestine to show the medicine's effect, and then feature a geriatric performing Tantric shadow-boxing in a public park while a voice-over warns of side effects such as nose bleeds, dry heaves, and fainting spells.
The most annoying commercials are for those products that are too expensive for 90% of viewers to buy. Please, do not show me a picture of a man in a tuxedo driving a Lexus® sport coupe around his private island. It doesn't connect with where I am.
What you need for a successful commercial, is a product that people want anyway and can afford to buy. If it is a new product that people are unfamiliar with, you have the problem of communicating the function of the product.
If you are neither producing the product, nor involved with an advertising company, you need to contact the advertiser of the product and pitch the idea to them. A presentation with story boards would be good. I recommend the movie What Women Want, which is about advertisers who landed the Nike® contract, because in a few scenes they show how advertisers talk to each other, at least in the movies. It is on the basis of that movie that I share all of my advice.
Do NOT try to free-lance your idea to the producer directly. Bad, bad form. I would think they are under exclusive contract and won't be able to give you the time of day without being sued.
Your idea can include chimpanzees or beautiful models, but not usually both, unless you intend a gimmick in which a beautiful model walks off from the party with the chimpanzee because he had offered her the right kind of soda. If you are selling medicines to reinvigorate male sexuality, it has so far been considered in very poor taste to have the balding man leave his wife and walk off with a beautiful model.
Remember, in commercials, it is always okay for the male schlep to be humiliated in love, even by a chimpanzee. It is NEVER okay for a woman to be humiliated in love. It IS okay for two super-models to get in a catfight in a park fountain. In other words, women can be humiliated all the time, but only if they are super sex-kittens. Matrons, the counterparts to the male schleps, are above and beyond all reproach. Thus, the overweight matriarch can talk freely about her husband, a male schlep, and his constipation problem.
Women can occasionally be the brunt of slapstick comedy, but only if it is clear that the male is a clumsy schlep. So Cedrik the Entertainer ends up dumping beer all over his date because he had been so excited that when he fetched the beer, he had danced and shaken the bottle in privacy of his kitchen, causing it to explode when opened. The best commercial of all was the guy whose girl-friend had come by unannounced, so he "cleaned" his apartment by throwing everything into the closet, and then she went to hang up her coat and got buried. These are funny because the joke is really on the guy.
If you believe that women will be the ones buying your product, your commercials may involve schleps in the "Dad" role, but everyone should be modestly dressed and if there are kids in the commercial, even better. If you believe that men will buy your product, Cedrik the Entertainer is a great pitchman.
These rules can be very complicated, but you should intuit them in advance before you try to break your idea in with an advertising agency. If you are interested in the profession, check out college-level advertising programs and internships in New York, Chicago, Houston, or Los Angeles. It seems like, at least once in my life, some product had a contest which invited jingles or advertising concepts from the consumer public. Maybe you can keep your eyes open to those kinds of opportunities. Otherwise, go to college and work your way in to the industry. 

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