Finding the Real Sell

I have been in the commercial casting industry for 10 years, both as a part of the casting process and as a booking actor. I have been teaching commercial workshops for the past five years. Whenever I'm asked why I started teaching, my answer is always the same: I feel that 60 to 70 percent of the actors who audition for commercials have no idea what to do in the audition room. As an actor this was crushing my soul, and as a casting director it was adding stress to an already often-stressful job.

This is not the fault of the actor, however. Nor is it the fault of the client or the ad agency that came up with the concept for the commercial I'm casting. The problem is the huge disconnect between commercial acting and other acting. Actors, unfortunately, approach a commercial audition as a traditional acting job. It's not. There is a certain level of performance that the casting director and the client expect, but it is not acting in the traditional sense. In drama school, actors will not learn the skills they need to book a car commercial. Acting is art; commercials are sales.

On the other side of the great divide are the client and the ad agency. They feel that what they are looking for from the actor is blatantly obvious in the storyboards or the copy. They come from marketing and sales, however; they have business backgrounds. In 10 years of casting commercials, the phrase I've probably heard most from clients during callbacks is "I wish he 'got it' " or "We really wanted her to 'get it.' "

What they're talking about, and what I try to teach in my classes and during my casting sessions, is this: Commercials are not about acting ability. In fact, the best actor rarely books the job. Actors auditioning for commercials must understand the point behind the commercial: How does this concept, this story, sell the product? Then they must make decisions and choices based on this knowledge during the audition. It's not just about saying the lines. In actuality, the actor is not expected to be married to the copy in about 90 percent of commercial auditions. They have license to make the copy their own.

So why are most actors spending all their time in the lobby memorizing their lines when they were just told in the group explanation that we're not married to the copy? I am not saying the lines are not important. You should know them. But if the people who wrote the lines are telling you that the lines are not the most important part of the audition, then it seems a wasted opportunity to sit in that lobby going over them and over them, then simply regurgitate them when someone says "Action."

If you want to succeed at commercial auditions, you need to realize that the advertisers are not selling a product; they're selling a feeling. How does this product enhance the lives of the buying public? An actor must learn to read between the lines of the commercial script and find the true "sell." Then make choices about the performance based on that information.

There are no characters in commercials; it's just people being themselves within the world the ad agency has created. You don't need to show your acting ability in that room. Rather, show the director and the client that you understand the point of the campaign and that you can help sell this product. You must show through your choices that you "get it." Save the acting for the stage; make your life easier in the commercial audition by just being yourself and taking a moment to think about what is really going on with the product.

Killian McHugh will lead the intensive "Spot On: Commercial Workshop" at
Actorfest LA on Saturday, Nov. 6. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
For more information on Actorfest LA, go to