Learning to Write from TV Commercials by Debra H. Goldstein
Lately, I’ve vegged in front of the TV. It isn’t the shows that attract my attention, but the commercials. They are a perfect lesson in storytelling for a writer to observe. Why? Because they must tell their tale in thirty to sixty seconds in a way that we remember. They achieve this through tight scripts, careful casting of actors, and specific product placement.
Like short stories, commercials limit themselves to a single or simple story arc with a final twist. Let me give you some examples. Some of the longer commercials, which are shown on stations that run golden oldie procedurals, run more than a minute. Two, which target different groups, show children or veterans with challenges and how the advertised hospital system or non-profit improves lives through the aid being given. These commercials depend upon characterization and the emotional strength of their stories to attract supporters to make donations when the ad concludes with a plea for money.
Many commercials are set in a kitchen. A husband, boyfriend, or child asks a wife, girlfriend, or mother about a specific food product or if they have more of an item. The woman provides a taste of the food or directs the individual to where the product is. The man or child is satisfied by the taste or being drowned in the product. The stories in these commercials are not as important as selling the name of the product or service. Consequently, there is product placement of a bag of the frozen food or a dish made with the advertised food. My favorite, which advertises a buying club, has roll after roll of paper towel dropping on a man. After the wife explains that without paying much, this service allows one to get quality and quantity, the twist is a child asking if next time they can order cookies. One laughs at the joke, and remembers the buying club.
Other commercials, like books in a series, build upon memories from previous commercials. The Budweiser Clydesdales were introduced in 1933 when prohibition ended. At that time, they pulled a Budweiser beer wagon. Today, they advertise beer for Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, the parent company that subsequently bought the Budweiser brand. People wait for each year’s new Super Bowl ad in the same way readers wait for the next book in a series by a favorite author.
Commercials hold our attention by using scripts that address topics from purely realistic or sentimental viewpoints or by mixing what people know with moments of fantasy. If the commercial is successful, the viewer remembers the product as opposed to only the story line. If the writer succeeds, the reader subconsciously thinks about ideas the writer planted while enjoying the plotline.
What commercial makes the biggest impact on you? Why?