Commercials are designed to accomplish two things:

  1. Communicate knowledge about a product  — could be a car, shampoo, a law firm, or a person, like a political candidate – or a behavior, such as not smoking, getting vaccinated or healthy eating; and
  2. Persuade or induce the viewer to like, want, need or support that product or behavior.

When designing a commercial, you are generally focused on three elements:

  1. The knowledge or information that you want to communicate;
  2. The outcome that you want from the viewer; and
  3. The creative approach that will seek to deliver 1) the information, in a way that will produce 2) the desired outcome from the viewer.

Before we start looking at the strategies employed by this media format, it’s essential that you actually know everything you need to know about your product or behavior. You can’t sell a product unless you know it inside and out. Then, you can start to focus on creating a commercial about it. But this all begins with your own research. Once you have this, let the following tips help to guide you through the rest.

Tip 1: Who Are You Targeting?

You need to be really clear who you are targeting in your commercial. We all know that 12 year olds think differently than 18 year olds who think differently than 30 year olds. They all laugh at different things and they all respond to different stimuli. If this is your first commercial venture, we strongly recommend that you target …your own age range: your peers. This is the audience you know best.

Tip 2:  What Are You Hoping To Accomplish?

Next comes a statement of purpose: what are you trying to get the audience to understand and to do, …or think…or behave. Once you have written your statement of purpose, all the other decisions should, in some way, support that statement.

Statement of Purpose Example (based on the AdCouncil’s campaign about teen bullying): ‘To create an awareness of how teen’s words and actions impact those around them, in positive and negative ways.’ This example is based on research that suggests that teens often are not aware of the power of their words and actions on others and that even the smallest words or action, online or in person, can have a big effect.

Tip 3:  What’s Your Primary Narrative Tool?

Like all narratives, commercials have many tools at their disposal for delivering their message. Tools include the use of:

  • Humor
  • Mystery
  • Beauty
  • Aspiration
  • Celebrities
  • Fear and guilt
  • Music
  • Surprise
  • Forcefulness
  • Honesty and Authenticity

But unlike most narrative forms, the commercial is only sixty seconds (or less) long and can generally only afford to employ one or two narrative tools. Pick your approach and then stay with it.

The list above is not exhaustive. Brainstorm with your team about other narrative tools.

It is often helpful to look at existing commercials on TV and to analyze them. Which ones work and why? Which ones grab your attention and why? Which ones offend you…and why? As you do this, make notes of the commercials that most successfully engage you and work to incorporate those tools into the commercial you are creating.

Narrative Tool Example: The primary narrative tool we will use to address this issue is humor and surprise, because teens are drawn to commercials that are funny.

Tip 4: Brainstorm, Write And Choose Your Imagery, Create A Tagline.

The next steps involve:

  1. Brainstorming your approach – how are you going to ‘sell’ your product or behavior in a way that engages your target audience?;
  2. Scripting the commercial – you have a maximum of sixty seconds, so keep it simple;
  3. Creating a tagline – a tagline is a final motto or phrase that you hope the audience will remember; or that is designed to punch up your message in a dramatic way; and
  4. Choosing the visual shots to support the message and the script.This final step is usually done by creating a storyboard. To create a storyboard, take a piece of paper and draw two intersecting lines to create four squares. In each square, draw a picture of what you want to happen in that shot. The pictures can be simple. Is it a close-up or a wide shot, and of what? You want each picture to capture a shot that you will actually shoot for your commercial. Then, under each picture, write the words that will accompany each shot. If your commercial is more than four shots, then create more storyboard frames. The end purpose is to be able to visualize and plan your shoot.

Narrative Example:  We will create a commercial with a bunch of teens hanging around. A young man in this mixed gender group will say something that, at first, sounds funny – something, perhaps, about body weight or stereotypes. The camera will pan around to all the teens laughing. And then, suddenly, zoom in on one person who did not find it funny; who was offended and hurt. As that person slinks away, the first young man who said the line, will yell, “Hey Sis, where are you going? Our home is that way!”

The intention of this narrative is that this young man did not intend to hurt the feelings of his own sister, …but he did.

Tagline: Funny Can Hurt – Watch Your Words

Good Luck!