Why so many local commercials look cheap, and why we won't let yours look that way.
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
I recently went home to my parent's farm in the Midwest for a few months, taking care of my dad while he recovered from surgery. While killing time finding things to do (you spend a lot of time inside during the winter when the Dakotas have record-breaking snow) I watched a lot of TV. Channel-surfing through the Game Show Network, Lone Ranger reruns and area news channels one thing stuck out like a sore thumb - local commercials suck.
Well, maybe not all of them. Most were non-offensive enough and quite forgettable. (That's an argument for another day - is it a good thing if something is so terrible you'll never forget it?) But some were so bad that I wondered just who thought it up, who pitched it, and who was the poor client who pulled the trigger and said, "Yup! Good enough!"
Originally I was mostly mad at the client who paid for it, who settled for it - but then I realized that the agency who pitched and produced it was the real criminal. They should never have allowed their client to say "good enough!". They're not the expert. We are. We do this for a living. And how did it turn out so badly? Was it budget? Or just laziness? An example - one egregiously bad local car commercial had animation that looked at least three decades old, a child actress who was looking anywhere BUT where the animation was supposed to be, and to top it all off, a terrible voice-over.
It was embarrassing. And if the budget would not allow anything more than that level of animation, the prodution company should have stepped in and said, "yeah, this is bad." Go in a different direction instead.
We should never say "well, it's good enough", nor let our clients get away with saying it, either. It can always be better. A little imagination goes a long ways, and a little extra effort and work for the client goes a long way. For a short film I directed, we wanted to show the after effects of a zombie invasion from literally around the world - different cultures, different cities. Can't afford that, what do we do? (And frankly, green-screening people in different locations looks cheesy.) So we did three different takes in the same alleyway location - but with three different actresses from three different cultures, dressed somewhat stereotypically for those cultures - and then we just swapped out the posters on the wall each time, in three different languages. Boom. We're transported around the world. And the zombie was the exact same zombie each time (which saved on makeup and FX!) but each time wore different clothes for that particular culture. It was very funny (people knew exactly what we did and why we did it, and laughed) and memorable. With some imagination and effort, low-budget became high-concept. Less than a hundred dollars in props, three models and one zombie later, we visited India, Japan and the Alamo in Texas!
I'll end this with example from our own commerical portfolio - a spot for a chain of comic book stores. We didn't want something that included all of the usual tropes or comic book store cliches - such as a kitschy spot with splashy1960s Batman TV and stereotypical BIFF! BOOM! POW! graphics, nor did we want adults dressed as Superman/Hulk/other heroes telling you to be a good citizen and shop at the store. No. None of that. Who would that campaign appeal to? Probably, someone who's already a comic book collector. What we wanted was a new generation of parents to know that comics (and by extension, comic book stores) weren't the same as the ones they grew up with. No comparisons to the Simpson's and Comic Book Store guy. (Worst. Commercial. Ever.) We wanted to get across that this is not your dad's comic book store. So we went a different route - which also also happened to the affordable route - namely, using kid actors. Boys and girls making their own costumes and playing hero. Using their imagination and not buried in a video screen. The finishing touch - heroic music and a nostalgic voice-over - reminded mom and dad what comic books meant to them and/or what it could mean to their kids. Positive aspects - literacy, art, sharing, imagination, teamwork and friendship.
Inexpensive to produce, a hit with the client - and a major crowd-pleaser!