What does it take to create an effective television commercial?

First, let me preface this by saying that my area of expertise does not lie in the creative arena, so feel free to disagree with me if you are a Creative Guru. But, over the years, I’ve found that almost all television commercials fall into one of four categories:

Fantastic! I would buy their product! (Or, if you’re in the biz, “I want to work on that account!”)

It was so good, it made me cry*…who was the advertiser again? (*crying from either laughing out loud or pulling at heartstrings)

Well-intentioned mediocrity

Cringeworthy (so bad, it’s good?)

Unfortunately, I think there is a majority of spots that fall into category #3. These are the spots we don’t even remember seeing. They are so weak that they might as well have been dead airwaves. (Maybe that’s harsh, but these are the ones that are so boring, I don’t really remember enough to write about them, I just have this uneasy feeling that they’re out there, all the time.) The ad agencies and clients who produce these types of commercials aren’t bad people – they’re just misguided.

There’s also seems to be no shortage of spots that are so bad I am left to wonder, “who thought this was a good idea?” Perhaps it started out as a good idea but turned into bad execution. If that’s the case, it’s likely the advertiser just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) spend enough to buy the production value necessary to interpret the good idea. (In which case, they should have just scrapped it and come up with a concept that could be well-produced within their budget.)

When both a lame idea and unfortunate execution come together, it’s then elevated to Category #4 – “cringeworthy”. Ironically, being truly “cringeworthy” often leads to the commercial being more memorable than those in the aforementioned category #3 (for better or worse).

Of course, there are also those commercials that are very well-produced, entertaining and memorable… except that you can’t actually remember who the advertiser is. You recall the characters, the music, the punch line, but not the advertiser. This phenomenon occurs with all good intentions and Creative Genius, but I think everyone involved gets so wrapped up in telling a good story, they forget who the hero of their little story must ultimately be.

So, how do we produce a television commercial/campaign that falls into the fantastic category? There are no guarantees, but I’ve developed some general guidelines:

The sky’s the limit (no budget limitations)

Use cool music, famous people, exotic locations, dangerous stunts (see no budget limitations)

Make it really funny or really sad

If all else fails, spend a LOT of money on airtime (that way, even if it falls into categories 2-4, at least a lot of people will see it a lot of times and eventually it will stick)

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