Could you tell a story from start to finish if you only had 60 seconds? How about 30 seconds? Impossible as that seems, TV and radio ads accomplish this 24/7.
Their goal is to sell a product or service to viewers and listeners in as little time as possible. Since money is a big factor, too, they need to meet their goal with a small cast and — in the case of TV — a small number of locations. The exercises in this month’s issue all revolve around commercials and how they can be used to better understand structure, pacing and character development in feature screenplays and shorts.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. What is your favorite television commercial? What is the product being pitched? Who is the target demographic?
2. What’s the funniest commercial you’ve ever seen? What made you laugh?
3. What is your least favorite television commercial? What is it about this commercial that really annoys you? What would you do differently?
4. If a movie star or sports figure endorses a particular product, are you more likely to buy it than if the spokesperson was someone you didn’t recognize? Why or why not?
5. When was the last time you or your parents bought a product as a result of seeing it advertised on television? What was the product? Would this product have been purchased if it hadn’t been for the commercial that hyped it?
6. Have you ever watched a commercial in a foreign language? From a visual standpoint, what are some of the differences you observed between commercials made in America and commercials made in foreign countries?
THE VOICE OF AUTHORITY
Establishing trust with your target audience is critical if you want to get them to open their wallets, open their hearts, or open their minds. Would you feel more comfortable, for instance, buying a vacuum cleaner from a total stranger or from the guy who actually invented a well known brand and believed in it enough to put his name on it? If you were going to invest in a pricey piece of exercise equipment for a home gym, would you trust a spokesperson in a cheap suit who was flabby and out of shape or someone like Chuck Norris?
Your assignment: The agent for the following fairy tale characters comes to you and is looking for a celebrity spokesperson gig for one of his clients. Fortunately, you have a lot of connections with advertisers who are seeking someone who can bring a unique – and credible – slant to what they want to sell. Choose one of these characters, identify a product for which he/she would be a perfect spokesperson, and write a 30-second (one page) commercial:
· The Frog Prince
· Red Riding Hood
· Sleeping Beauty
· The Big Bad Wolf
AND NOW, A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR…
The placement of a commercial within a show is important since it needs to tap into the mindset and buying power of the audience. You wouldn’t, for instance, try to sell baby products in the middle of a football game or try to hawk real estate during Saturday morning cartoons. This would be like entering your comedy short in a contest or film festival that’s only looking for dramas. Why? Because the best message in the world will be totally lost if it doesn’t play to the right crowd.
Your assignment: Using the commercial you wrote in the previous exercise, identify (1) what TV show, network movie, or sports event your commercial should appear in, (2) who the target audience is for this particular program, and (3) why your commercial would be a great fit in this slot.
OPERATORS ARE STANDING BY TO TAKE YOUR CALL
Infomercials are a turbo-charged form of advertising that look like a TV talk show and engage in high-pressure tactics and bonus offers to get viewers to grab a credit card and pick up the phone while supplies still last. Infomercials typically feature astonishing before-and-after demos of “miracle” cleaning products or household tools and throw in incentives such as “two for the price of one”, free monogramming, or nifty customized canisters to hold the product or tool when not in use. Numbers and percentages figure prominently in the pitch, too, as a way to offer “scientific” proof of the product’s superiority.
Your assignment: Write a 60-second (2 page) infomercial script that hawks a fake product, features an over-the-top pitch person (the late Billy Mays is a good example), and a before-and-after demo. Note: Although your infomercial can take place in any era, you are only allowed to use one setting.
THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
In the early 1990s, Taster’s Choice® launched what would become a successful series of coffee commercials that instantly stirred (no pun intended) the public’s attention. The 60-second increments featured the flirtatious attraction between two strangers who live in the same apartment building and who are brought together by circumstance: one of them needs to borrow coffee from the other. Audiences loved the concept of recurring characters whose mini love story nudged forward a few months at a time, always ending in some sort of cliffhanger. This approach to marketing was also embraced by Hallmark Cards®, Country Crock Margarine®, Budweiser® and others, providing viewers with entertaining station breaks that actually made them stay in the living room to see how the “stories” would come out.
Your assignment: Using Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous “VJ Day Kiss” photograph for inspiration, develop a six-part episodic storyline involving these two characters and featuring the same product throughout as the central element of their relationship.
DON’T I KNOW YOU FROM SOMEWHERE?
Advertisers often use characters that are already familiar to viewers and place them in unexpected – and often humorous – scenarios. AT&T®, for example, portrays Hansel and Gretel as tiny tourists in the Big Apple who are blissfully unaware that pigeons are gobbling up the trail of breadcrumbs they’ve been dropping along the way. No worries. Gretel remembered to bring the GPS to get them safely home. In an ad for Snickers®, Henry VIII and Bacchus are on a road trip in a tiny car with friends and singing a chorus of Greensleeves. For a series of insurance ads, Geico® served up the incongruity of two articulate cavemen watching TV in their bachelor apartment, dining in fine restaurants, bowling, and participating in psychotherapy sessions.
Your assignment: An advertising agency has hired you to write a 60-second (2 page) commercial without any dialogue. Your characters are Darth Vader and Paris Hilton. The product is a window cleaner.
RAISING SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Commercials aren’t just for selling laundry detergent, snack foods or timeshares in Costa Rica; they’re also used to sell viewers on the importance of regional, national and global activism to make the world a better place. Topics such as hunger, poverty, disaster relief, literacy, AIDS, substance abuse, unemployment, teen pregnancy, gang violence, homelessness, and conservation are often addressed through a combination of compelling visuals, testimonials, statistics, music, and black-and-white stills to drive home a powerful message and a call to action.
Your assignment: Identify a social issue that you feel passionate about and design a 60-second (2 page) commercial to persuade your target demographic to make a contribution, cast a vote, or step up and volunteer.
For instructors seeking ready-made commercial sketches for filming and video exercises, check out 20 TV Commercial Comedy Sketches and 20 More TV Commercial Comedy Sketches available through www.meriwetherpublishing.com. Sample ads include: “Never Bossed” (a GPS product to help you elude your supervisor), “Fancy Feet Fakers” (to help even the terminally klutzy dance like a ballroom star), “Hair Club for Werewolves” (the name says it all), and the amazing “Rotissaphone” (a must-have tool for the outdoor barbeque enthusiast).
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 128 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.