Getting a TV commercial made for your business

A great television commercial can become a cultural touchpoint that people remember for years. Here's how to make one on a budget
Apr 5, 2020 • 9 minute read
JT Ripton @JTRipton
Technical Co-pilot
Cover photo for Getting a TV commercial made for your business

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The right TV commercial can embed your brand in your customers’ consciousness for years or even a lifetime

Many of us still recall the best commercials of our youth, whether they were for Coca-Cola or our goofy local car dealership. However, the vast majority of commercials are forgettable.

Of the many, many commercials you’ve seen, how many stood out? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? Many enterprising companies spend bigs chunk of money in exchange for fame and fortune and receive a whole lot of nothing.

You could view this situation pessimistically and assume that the odds are against you; that TV advertising is just an expensive gamble with a big upside. However, commercial greatness isn’t just fate. If you view the task analytically, by examining what sets great commercials apart, you can increase your odds of making a huge return on your investment.

Know your purpose

OK, so you’re going to go out there and advertise and get people’s attention. Fantastic. But what, exactly, do you plan to do with that attention? Your advertising should align with your business’ goals, and depending on what those goals are, the ad should feel different.

For example, if you just want to raise brand awareness, you want to differentiate yourself as much as possible. Research your competitors and their messaging and be different. Be like the person in a unique outfit who steals everyone’s attention when they walk into a room of people who are all dressed similarly.

However, if you want to sell a new product that addresses a problem, make your audience painfully aware of that problem. Present an emotional narrative in which your product arrives as the solution that saves the day.

You can do this in a novel way. Remember that funny IKEA commercial about how you’re sad about the fate of your old lamp “because you are crazy?” In a sense, that commercial is presenting a problem in the form of narrative: you’re too attached to your old stuff. IKEA has cheap, new, better stuff, and thus it offers the solution.

Direct your customers

It’s weird but true: people don’t know what to do unless you tell them. Conversely, a simple suggestion is surprisingly powerful. Once you have a customer’s attention, your job is to take charge. Tell them what to do with a clear call to action. Ask your doctor if Examplequil is right for you. Call this number and schedule an appointment. Visit CBDwave.com. Without a clear suggestion, customers may remember your commercial, but not do anything about in particular.

It’s true that not all ads have this, but if they don’t, it’s usually because the brand’s call to action is implicit. For example, liquor commercials don’t need a call to action because the action being dictated is clear: buy this thing at the grocery store when you see it tomorrow. This is very convenient for Budweiser, but if you’re not Budweiser, you’ll need to provide a clear intention.

Have a novel idea

It’s a cliche because it’s true: our attention spans, already short, have been reduced to microseconds. Devices clamor for our attention constantly. This makes it more difficult to capture audience attention. Not only that, but audiences frequently watch with DVR, so they can skip commercials immediately if they aren’t memorable.

Accordingly, your commercial will fail if it feels like everything else on television. Plan to stand out, whether that’s by selecting attention-grabbing music, choosing an unusual setting, or selecting a memorable actor (more on that in a moment.) And present your distinct element right away.

A recent commercial success worth studying is Dollar Shave Club, whose YouTube spot single handedly made their brand wildly successful, and, in the process, shook up the entire razor industry. Part of the reason the commercial succeeded was that it was completely unusual; nobody had ever seen a CEO enthusiastically yelling about their product while taking a joyride through their warehouse.

For a completely different example, remember the Dove Real Beauty ads? Although they’re now old hat, at the time, they were revolutionary; whereas most beauty and hygiene ads present a simple, aspirational image, they presented narratives about self-consciousness and insecurity in greyscale, with evocative, moody music. Nobody had done that, and though the ads had many detractors, that just shows how much they infiltrated the public consciousness.

Insist on production quality

No matter what your budget, quality production is a must. It’s the cost of entry. If your commercial seems amateurish, your company will seem amateurish. Returning briefly to the aforementioned Dollar Shave Club commercial: you might remember that it had an authentic homespun feeling—but that was the result of skillful production, not the lack of it.

When selecting a videographer, it’s important that you like their work. Generally, different production companies have different aesthetic preferences and different specialties. If your taste matches that of the directors and cinematographers you’re working with, they can serve as collaborators, providing new ideas that can make your work better. Meanwhile, if there’s conflict, you’ll be fighting their judgement every step of the way.

So, before you even schedule an appointment with a production company, take a look at their portfolio. Generally, when assembling portfolios, production companies put their best foot forward, so if they don’t impress you immediately with what’s on their website, chances are they won’t impress you after you’ve hired them.

If you're using a production company on a freelance platform like ours, make sure you not only look at their portfolio, but at their reviews. This is one of the benefits of using a freelance platform. You can see an honest assessment of how each production company or videographer has performed for past clients.

Commission a great script

One of the paradoxes of advertising is that great ads typically don’t sound like ads, which is to say, they don’t sound like a sales pitch customers have heard before. We’re all savvy consumers of media, and we all have a module in our brains that says, “oh, I see we’re being sold something, how tedious, it’s time to look at Instagram.”

This doesn’t mean that you should pelt your customers with random word salad, or forget that you’re writing an ad altogether. Just tweak things a little bit. Endear your customers to your personality and then sell them.

The easiest way to do this is by hiring a freelance professional commercial writer. They’ll have a sense of what’s out there because they’ll have written it. Accordingly, when you tell them to give you something that sounds unique, they’ll have applied knowledge of what exactly that means.

Do, however, remember that scriptwriters aren’t faultless. They have the expertise, but you’re their boss, and if it doesn’t delight you on the page, it probably won’t delight you when an actor says it. Any truly professional writer will hear your criticism, incorporate it, and come back to you with something more in line with your preferences.

Cast the right talent

When you’re casting a Hollywood movie, what you’re looking for in a lead is generally simple. You want someone with enviably perfect features, effortless charisma, and a wide emotional range.

However, when you’re casting for a commercial, the goals are often completely different. It’s true that if you’re marketing a luxury lifestyle brand, and you want to demonstrate that your customers are part of an elite group, a celebrity or model might be an appropriate choice. But car insurance is a different thing altogether; nobody sees Gal Gadot and thinks “collision deductible.”

What works? Memorable, relatable, but somewhat unusual; a person you’d forget if you saw them at the bus stop, but would remember if you’d spoken to them. In other words, a character actor.

The gold standard is Flo from Progressive, who looks like a fairly average person, but possesses an outsized level of enthusiasm. Also memorable is Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World; he radiated warmth and wisdom, and was completely different, in age, appearance and manner from the usual Ken-doll-esque male lead.

If you're working with a freelance production company, they may be able to source talent for you. Just make sure you're able to review the actors they select for your ad, and give your approval before shooting commences.

Consider music

The jingle or commercial theme is its own art. If done poorly, they can be annoying, and you don’t necessarily need one; the Old Spice Man commercials subsisted entirely on sound effects and a strong vocal performance, only bringing in a momentary musical flourish at the end. However, if your commercial just feels like it’s missing something, like the alchemy isn’t happening, you might need to ask a freelance composer to help. A few bars of music can enshrine a brand forever. What melody comes to your head when you hear the phrase “like a good neighbor?”

Do your audience research

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not buying a Superbowl spot, and, thus, you won’t be reaching all of America in one fell swoop. Thus, you should obsess over which segments of the television audience are most likely to contain your perfect customer. It doesn’t matter how unique your ad is if it falls on deaf ears. Imagine an Axe Body Spray ad displaying during Antiques Roadshow.

Fortunately, networks obsess over audience data just as much as you should. They live and die on targeting their programming appropriately. Thus, they’ll be able to give you as much information as you possibly need. It’s just up to you to leverage your own marketing data and combine it with what they give you.

Positioning can also be a source of savings. If you book a local station and 30,000 people see your campaign, half of whom might be interested in your product, that’s a much better result than a commercial that’s targeted at 10% of an audience of 100,000.

Ultimately, marketing does have an element of mystery. It’s challenging to capture the zeitgeist in such a media-saturated era. But anyone setting out to run a successful TV campaign has a tremendous resource in the commercial successes of the past and what they’ve taught us. Just keep in mind that one of the consistent lessons is innovation; if you mimic one of the original commercials of the past, you’re missing the point. Believe in your originality.

An off-the-wall option: Run a contest

So, just to put things in perspective, if you're looking to make a high quality TV ad, you should hire:

  • A freelance videographer
  • Actors
  • A freelance composer
  • A freelance scriptwriter
  • Possibly a freelance voiceover artist

But what if you're on a very tight budget? Fortunately, there's an end-to-end solution for getting a TV ad made that means you may not have to hire multiple skilled freelancers.

Remember that Dollar Shave Club commercial we mentioned before? That ad worked well because it was unashamedly low-fi while still being creative and well directed. Your ad doesn't have to have a huge budget to yield great results.

One interesting way to get a TV ad made on a budget is to run a contest on Freelancer. We actually ran one to get an ad made for Freelancer, and got some great entries.

To pull it off, just describe your brand, your unique value proposition and your target audience, along with the general vibe you're going for. Are you looking for something inspirational? Something funny? Something to inspire fear of missing out? Then, upload any assets you want used in the video such as your logo or jingle. Then post your contest and wait for the entries to roll in. It's a great way to get a TV ad made on a budget.

Final words

A great TV ad is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only can you buy ad time on local television stations to reach a wide audience, you can also use it as a social media ad to reach more targeted audiences. And a great ad idea can spin off into an entire creative campaign that informs the direction of your advertising for years to come. That means video, print, radio and online ads can all follow the direction of your first TV ad.

It doesn't take a massive budget to pull this off. You can hire a team of talented freelancers to make a high quality television ad for your business. Or, if you're working on an extremely tight budget, you can crowdsource your ad and come up with something memorable that'll propel your business into viral fame.

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