How to Write a TV Commercial

A TV commercial is the media equivalent of flash fiction in that you have only a scant 30 to 60 seconds to establish a problem or present an issue that is relevant to your viewers, provide a demonstration and/or supporting testimony of how and why it works, and then suggest a plan of action that shows how the problem can be resolved by using the service or product featured. While TV commercials for major companies such as Geico, Nike or Budweiser are written by advertising agencies, having a few "spec" scripts in your portfolio could help you land a dream job with a PR firm or just establish a neighborhood clientele of business owners looking for creative ways to reach their core demographic (for instance, Realtors or car dealers who pool their resources to buy air time).

Things You'll Need

  • Computer
  • Word processing software
  • Internet access
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Instructions

    • 1

      Watch and study a wide variety of TV commercials in order to understand their structure, pacing, backdrops and props. Lower budget spots, for example, generally take place at a single location such as a kitchen, use one to four characters, and employ frequent close-ups of the product. High-end commercials (for example, those for American Airlines) incorporate a montage of different locales, expensive or unusual props, lots of special effects, and more actors (even if their only purpose is to provide ambience). Some commercials use a single celebrity spokesperson; others use a man-on-the-street approach with improvisational feedback from regular workaday people. In addition, there are ads that employ animation, ads that show only select body parts (hands or feet), ads with catchy jingles, and ads that use voice-over narration to accompany a succession of photographs.

    • 2

      Study the proper format of a TV commercial before you begin. At The Spec Bank website, you can see what sample commercials look like in their written format. If you already have a screenwriting software program such as Final Draft, you simply select the teleplay format from the menu and the system will plug all the elements into the right spots. If you're using Word, however, the easiest format to work with is to create a two column screen. To do this, proceed to Step 3.

    • 3

      Open a new Word document, click on "Page Layout," click on "Columns" and select "2." The top of the left-hand column is then labeled "Video" in all caps, and the top of the right-hand column is labeled "Audio" in upper and lower case. When you actually start writing your commercial script, all of the visual information is typed in all caps on the left and the corresponding audio (dialogue, music, and sound effects) is typed in upper and lower case on the right. Each of the video/audio sections is separated from the next segment by a line space. An example of what this looks like can be found at http://www.cybercollege.com/commerc.htm.

    • 4

      Decide on a topic for your TV commercial. Since this is a spec script, it can be for an existing product or a completely fictitious one---say, an aerosol that keeps dragons at bay. You might even want to take a character from a commercial that has already been done and make it the spokesperson for a different product (the Geico gecko selling baby food).

    • 5

      Identify your target demographic for the commercial. An ad targeted to young children, for instance, is going to use lots of snappy action and silliness. An ad targeted to upscale consumers will be imbued with sophisticated narration or dialogue and glam imagery (exotic locales, elegant residences, and luxury vehicles). A commercial targeted to harried housewives will focus on capturing scenarios that are instantly relatable to them (getting kids ready for school, preparing for a visit from the in-laws, or feeding hungry teenagers).

    • 6

      Determine the genre that best fits the product or service you're pitching in your commercial. Examples include comedy, drama, romance, and thriller.

    • 7

      Identify the primary attributes of the product or service you're writing about. These are the things that you're going to emphasize throughout your text. For a commercial to be successful, it needs to embrace one or more of the following elements: food, sex, self-esteem, economics, or safety. Analyze whether the attributes you have listed for your product cover these objectives. For example, let's say your commercial is about heat-and-eat snack rolls. It obviously addresses the element of food. If the unit cost of the snack rolls is low, it's going to appeal to families watching their budgets. Third, if a mom can put out a plate of snack rolls for her teenage daughter's hungry pals when they drop by the house after soccer practice, she's going to be thought of as a cool parent and this, in turn, will make her feel good about herself.

    • 8

      Determine the settings, props and number of characters you need to effectively convey your message. If this is your first spec script, keep it as simple and uncluttered as possible.

    • 9

      Hook your audience in the first frame. Try a daring question ("Is your refrigerator as clean as it should be?"), a suspenseful setup (a person breathlessly running down a dark street as he's being pursued), or a story-style format (virtually any commercial done by Hallmark). You might even want to dabble in a cliff-hanger motif. A good example of this was the series of commercials done by Taster's Choice coffee that invited the audience along on an extended ride to see if the attractive couple featured in the ads would ever actually get together.

Tips & Warnings

  • A 30-second script should not exceed one typed page in length if you're formatting it as a two column spread. A 60-second script should not exceed one typed page if you're formatting it as a teleplay. An annual awards celebration, the Clios, acknowledges the best advertising campaigns that have been done throughout the world. Their website posts the winning entries and is fun to peruse. It might ignite some imagination, make you say "Wow!" and give you the giggles. If you want to compare how commercials have evolved over the decades, a visit to RetroJunk provides an amusing flash to the past.

  • Keep your focus on the product or service you're pitching. Unlike in a novel, you don't have the luxury of a slow build-up and exposing multiple layers of character. You need to hit the ground running and make every single second count.

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