Welcome to part two of our look at the commercial genre — part one is here. Last week, we considered the ‘product and service’ focus which is the hallmark of the category and discussed how distribution of commercials outside of traditional on–air broadcast has offered a great deal of opportunity to the form. We took a look at the amazing Old Spice and Google Search: Reunion spots, and are ready to carry on—
Samsung Brand Film
I would argue that this ‘Samsung Brand Film’ is not really a brand film but rather a really, really long commercial. Brand films tend to focus on what the brand itself represents (either in emotional, conceptual or aspirational terms) rather than tying to a specific product. This is far more a traditional commercial unconstrained by the :30 broadcast standard because it was online, and therefore ran as long as the budget would allow. Cut out the prolonged journey in the middle (from :14 to 1:44) and the extensive end messaging (after 2:11), and you’re left with a :45 second spot. This could easily be cut down to a classic :30 with some of the running put back in to suggest the journey, and you would have a quite typical commercial — the story of a man who gains some knowledge and journeys to this thing he desires to enjoy it. In this case, it’s a Samsung heating unit. I would argue that this film suffers from a loss of focus between what it is trying to be (a brand film) and how it is presenting itself (as a commercial), and executes neither to their potential. It remains caught between the two genres because the difference between them lies in their objective not their duration.
There is also a failed conceit at the beginning that assumes we are hooked enough by the opening moments to watch a man run for 1:30 through various landscapes. We can often fall into this trap, thinking that we (or our product) are interesting enough that anything we do is engaging. This discounts the viewer and how they perceive the work. What is the hook supposed to be? Is Copenhagen supposed to be sufficiently exotic that I’m entranced? Or the man’s beauty? Or the fact that a man is going to do a thing that I don’t quite understand? We don’t have anything particular to hook our interest, so this is just a man in an empty place that I may or may not have been to before. Absence of information doesn’t work as a creative device unless the viewer is sufficiently engaged to begin with, and frankly as he runs across the plaza and the epic music begins you can easily mistake the video’s intention as humorous. And then when you realise it isn’t, awkwardness sets in.
From a creative perspective, it is a far stronger position to have a clarity of purpose and genre. Accepting that this film would be in either the commercial genre or the brand film genre would guide the relation of individual products to the story. In a commercial genre, you would likely want to focus on a single product and perhaps not only feature it at the top and tail of a long video but rather build the story around it. If you are featuring the phone, then maybe he can use it as a compass, to buy travel tickets, to text for a meeting place with a guide, or any other useful purpose. In the brand film genre, then perhaps feature more of a variety of products so that the Samsung influence has a regular beneficial effect on the character’s life, not just at minor points with no impact most of the time.
(In fairness to the creators, I have no idea what production constraints they were up against and how the course may have deviated before, after or during production. It could very well be that they had a clear and coherent vision that was then corrupted in later approval stages and ruptured the integrity of the work. I do not intend to criticise their ability or intention but rather discuss the resultant work, as I know in my own career there have been moments where a production has become severely derailed due to elements beyond my control.)
Dollar Shave Club
Dollar Shave Club gets so much right about the opportunities that are offered by the online liberation of commercials. Low budget charm, personal authenticity, a compelling story, bold content risks and humour. It checks all the boxes and earns the shareability reward. Could the individual production elements be better? Could the jokes be better written or delivered? Potentially yes, but the imperfection doubles–down the authenticity and personality. It’s clearly a commercial — a sales pitch expounding the merits of a product, and much like the highly stylised and impressionistic Old Spice campaigns that we discussed earlier, it feels very contemporary and engaged with its audience.
The PooPourri video is another commercial that takes a punt on using risqué humour featured on a truism (girls don’t poop) to find its audience, cleverly inverting its negative qualities. The production was clearly constrained by a limited budget, but the excellent writing, performance, editing and direction keep it moving at a surprisingly compelling pace (despite its length).
These videos all exhibit classic commercial behaviour — convincing you to purchase a product or use a service — but the form has adapted well beyond the traditional constraints of broadcast television. It’s interesting how the two continue to exist side by side, and in fact you can easily be in a situation of writing one video with two different versions, one to length for broadcast and one longer for online.
What makes a good commercial is a huge topic covered very well in advertising–focused books like The Advertising Concept Book by Pete Barry, but in brief let’s discuss a few things to consider. Are you trying to convey the use of the product (eg. this product makes smoothies) or it’s implication or benefit (eg. this product will make your family healthier)? It’s best to be as specific as possible, as it will be easier to get on the right track from the start and identify that you are there. A Huawei phone ad with the objective of “to sell the new phone” is a half–hearted attempt at precision, but “to show off the phone’s two new features, face recognition and photo stitching” suggests some well thought–out strategy. This gives you a clear starting point and lets you know that you are dealing with people who have some clarity of vision, and is the level of specificity that you should aim for in your brief.
Often, you will associate a lifestyle or relatable context to a product to help the viewer feel like it is something that is (or could be) familiar to them, it is achievable to have this product. It is also common to assign a positive or aspirational effect to the product or service, and clients can be skittish if they perceive that you are “going negative” in any way. Frustratingly, this perception of negativity can be sensitive to the point of simply acknowledging that your product does something that others do not is being negative towards the competition, even if you’re not saying anything about those other products. A detergent manufacturer, for example, may balk if you say that their product gets clothes the brightest because you’re suggesting that other products don’t. It can be infuriating, but something that can be avoided by developing a proper brief before getting started on your creative.
Finding The Spine
When writing in the commercial genre, I find it essential to find a theme, tag line and title to give the spot internal coherence. This central idea helps you decide what the characters or location should be like, what the overall tone and message should be, and guides the writing. The final tag line and title are an expression of the theme, and if these aren’t coming together then it’s usually a signal that something isn’t working in the commercial. I would be very cautious about putting this tag line forward to the client, however, as they often already have one in mind or late in the game decide to coordinate across a larger campaign, so make sure that your commercial works without it.
Finally, beware of potential :5, :10 and :15 versions for on–air, and :60 seconds for online, as it’s best to consider these lengths at the script stage not the editing stage. You never know when an additional shot or line of dialogue can help stitch it together nicely.