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Making good TV commercials on a scrappy budget
February 8, 2017 | Chris Stoltz

Announcer: You’ve tried scrubbing! You’ve tried scraping! You’ve tried sanding! But you just can’t seem to get good TV commercials for $500!

If you’re annoyed by all the bad TV commercials out there, you should be. Just about everyone else is annoyed by them, too. Sadly, there’s probably no quicker way to lower brand perception than creating low-budget TV spots. When was the last time you hired a lawyer who had TV commercials? Yep, never.

Just remember this: every one of those bad commercials came from a business owner who wanted to be on TV and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – spend an appropriate budget. It’s like wanting to get in the Indy 500, all you can afford is a wooden go-kart, and you wonder why you came in last.

So is there a way around this? Yes and no. You’ll almost always get better TV ads by having the right budget. If you just can’t find the money, there are several things you can do to improve your commercial.

Things to think about

Let’s start with some basics. First, always have a strong strategy.

It should be a compelling thought or argument – not compelling to you, but for consumers. There’s a huge difference. Also, make sure it’s one thought. A pizza spot that focuses on fresh ingredients, a special deal, service, delivery and catering actually focuses on nothing. No one will remember your commercial or your brand. And complicated messages lend themselves to boring ads that lack a big idea. Likewise, make sure your brand stands for one thing. Porsches are sexy. Volvos are safe. BMWs are performance. MINIs are fun. One thought.

Next, don’t use hard sell or exaggeration. People don’t want to be told what to do and they don’t want to hear how something is so amazing. Really, your two-day sale is amazing? Giving birth is amazing. Seeing Paris is amazing. Furniture sales – no. And you’re telling me to not miss it? That I have to hurry now? Guess what – it’s not going to happen.

Third, make sure your commercial has a big idea or concept. Something that dramatizes your point. Miller Lite wanted to point out that other light beers are so watered down, they basically taste like water. To dramatize this, they had guys think it was raining beer. That’s a concept.

Finally, there are ways your agency can make your low-budget commercial not look so low budget. This can be done by writing scripts that creatively lower production costs… without lowering production values.

This type of approach leads to lots of questions during brainstorming and script writing. Let’s say you brainstorm an idea that takes place on the Fiji Islands. Does this spot really need to be shot in the Fiji Islands? Can you find or create an island atmosphere while avoiding wide shots? Does your idea even need an island? Does your script story need, say, three locations? Even if it’s shot at one location, do you need more than one set-up?

Another challenge of creating low-budget TV spots is that normally you can only afford local talent. Having a smaller pool to choose from can make it hard to find the right person. Or, the person you find might not hit the right note for the script. Performance can make all the difference, and some local actors are great and come through. So, can you find the right talent? If not, could you eliminate speaking parts? Could you eliminate the need for actors altogether?

How about the camera? If you can’t afford to have the production company use a high-end professional camera, you end up with a bad professional camera. So what are your other options? Can the TV spot revolve around a regular person shooting video with their iPhone? Or maybe a security camera? Or a desktop camera?

Good creatives ask themselves dozens of these types of questions. Do you even need to shoot at all? Can you find stock footage that doesn’t look like bad stock footage? Do you need footage at all? Can the spot use just photos, graphics or type? What other costs can we eliminate? Do we really need a voiceover, or can everything be communicated with type? Anything else? You can always find something.

All of this can be better understood with a real-world example.

ASAC (Area Substance Abuse Council) reached out to MindFire for help developing a campaign. They wanted to raise awareness about helping loved ones who are struggling with substance use disorders. We recommended a combination of TV and digital ads, targeting adults 18 to 34. We knew we had to make a big impact with a small budget. This meant we had to very carefully manage production costs to ensure there was adequate budget for the media buy.

Creating advertising that is compelling for a drug program is tough enough. A minimal budget makes it even more difficult. But we were up for the challenge. When we began brainstorming, we came up with a lot of concepts. For the stronger ideas, we then began thinking about how we could execute them while removing unnecessary production costs. We took out the voiceover and instead used type. We brainstormed scenarios to shoot, while eliminating talent dialogue. We looked into stock video footage to see if there was anything usable. Luckily, we found the right footage for one idea.

Next up, music. Music plays a key part in setting the tone and creating emotion. So we spent considerable time to find the right music – music that created a mood and fit within the budget. If you’re wondering why music is so important, we have an entire article focused just on this.

We enhanced the look of the footage (called color grading). We laid out the copy out in a compelling manner and set the fades at an appropriate pace. We added the music. And for a minimal budget, we ended up with an engaging spot: Drowning.

Anyone could brainstorm Nike commercials and simply use top Hollywood directors, crews and talent. But that would probably cost you about $1.5 million. Maybe you have $1.5 million lying around just for production of one spot. Or maybe you just need your agency to take a sensible, yet creative approach to writing and producing good TV.

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