"Television commercials have become more intuitive, less cognitive." So asserts Gerry Schweitzer, chief account planning officer at the advertising firm Bates North America. "Of course, the best, most effective commercials have always worked on an emotional as opposed to an intellectual level. But I do believe that the best commercials today are more sophisticated than they used to be -- more seamless, yet visceral in their storytelling."
Not everyone agrees that TV ads are more sophisticated, let alone more effective. Still, the experts Back Stage interviewed concur that a change has taken place. Admittedly, there are still a handful of 1970s-style television spots -- and they proliferate during economic hard times -- marked by the hard-sell voice-over bellowing that brand X is better, bigger, cheaper, so go buy it now! (Remember Crazy Eddie?) But that genre is hardly representative.
Indeed, the signature of many ads today is that they are image-driven with little dialogue or traditional narrative drive. Stories depicting relationships are often sketchy and impressionistic. And the influence of MTV is pervasive. The 15- to 30-second bite has replaced the 60-second ad.
Undoubtedly, economics play a role in that shift, too, with more than one interviewee citing the Screen Actors Guild commercial strike two years ago as a contributor. During the strike, many producers simply relocated their base of operation and saw the benefits.
"If a commercial needs a larger cast, it's shot out of the country," notes Jerry Beaver (of Jerry Beaver Casting), who has been in the business for more than 20 years. "If they're shot here, they're created to have smaller casts with fewer lines."
Cents and Sensibility
Money considerations and shifting aesthetics inform each other. But whatever the confluence of factors, "TV ads are no longer written for actors; certainly, good actors are not called for," Beaver contends. "The dialogue usually doesn't require good acting."
Nonetheless, more actors are doing commercials than ever, yet fewer are making a real living at it. "Years ago, you had a handful of actors doing most of the big national commercials," continues Beaver. "Today, you have a lot of actors doing one or two commercials. And there are more celebrity endorsements than ever."
Think Michael Jordan awash in charm for Nike, or James Earl Jones suavely extolling the virtues of Verizon (in his trademark basso voice), two notably mega-successful campaigns.
For the non-high-profile actor, the "real person" look is still a plus in landing a commercial, although the desired persona for TV ads is surely "less edgy" than it once was, suggests Beaver, who cast ads for Levi's 501s in the 1980s, one of the first, if not the first, "real people" spots.
The Levi's commercials featured, instead of actors (although 50% were dues-paying thespians), real people: the real messenger on the real bike zooming through real traffic with his real pants hanging down.
"A more conservative, generic look is desired today," says Beaver. "And there's a very clear distinction between the urban and suburban look on TV commercials. If you're urban, you are a hip young inner-city kid or a hip successful 20-something adult sipping cappuccino in a Soho cafe." And that is what the viewer aspires to be, or so it is assumed.
Commercial casting director Judy Henderson points out that TV commercials have always reflected the philosophical and aesthetic trends in television programs and films -- from the storytelling techniques to the directorial approaches to the cinematography to the personas of the characters portrayed.
"The kid in the Dell commercial is not a new type," Henderson emphasizes. "He is right out of a slacker film. Similarly, when 'Seinfeld' was on the air, we saw a number of commercials suggesting characters out of 'Seinfeld' in 'Seinfeld'-like situations."
(And all note that there is a great deal of crossover today: TV and movie directors are also helming ads, and many new directors are using TV commercials as launching pads to film directing careers.)
Cultural values -- the zeitgeist in general -- contribute to the shaping of commercials. Naughty tots, as an example, are virtually nonexistent. Instead, children are presented as little adults, speaking and behaving like grownups. Henderson recently cast several children in a car spot. These were not toddlers in a back seat, but spokespersons pointing out, with a mature person's vocabulary, the car's classy appointments and driving virtues.
Comedy in TV ads is nothing new; some of the most successful ads have been humorous, including the recent dairy spot with its Elizabethan low-life revelers feasting on cheese: "Ahh, the power of cheese."
Concepts of what's funny and what isn't clearly vary, although the experts we interviewed all suggest that the nature of comedy in commercials has changed in one way or another. Most think it's subtler than it used to be.
Rita Powers of Extras Casting by Booked suggests that there is a new slyness tinged with sarcasm. She cites the Burlington ad that presents a party scene, complete with a man at the door collecting coats who the partygoers (and viewers) assume is the butler, when in fact he is a thief, busy acquiring the quality -- by Burlington, of course -- garments and abruptly absconding with them into the night.
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