What Makes an Effective Commercial

Click images to get access to all 2011 Super Bowl ads

Yesterday was the Super Bowl (#45 if you care) and that meant it was time for, you guessed, Super Bowl ads. We all know that is the #1 reason anyone ever watches the game, right?­čÖé Anyhow, as usual, there were a plethora of ads this year. Some better than others. But that begs the question, what makes one ad “better” than another. Better to whom? To the viewer? Better for the advertiser? What makes a commercial effective? Does the ad really create strong brand awareness, make you want to learn more, or even buy the product? Or is it just a way for the ad agency to have another entry for this year’s Clio Awards (which are the “Oscars” of commercials).

Based on my 20+ years of business experience, combined with my knowledge as a filmmaker, this is my humble opinion about what makes a commercial “effective.” If you’re going to spend millions of dollars creating an ad, then another $2-$3 million for air time on the Super Bowl, I would hope you’d like a return on that investment. Lest you end up like the Pets.com puppet.

Whether or not you’re creating multi-million dollar ad campaigns, or are creating a 30 second spot to air on the local cable channel, these are 4 attributes you should keep in mind when creating your commercial.

  1. The Spot is Memorable: when you consider that the average person gets thousands of “messages” a day for products and services, the commercial needs to really stand out and make a lasting impression.┬á It should cause people to talk about it around the water cooler the next day. Maybe it even makes you search for it on YouTube and share it on you Facebook wall.
  2. The Brand is Memorable: this is one area where many clever commercials fall short. They spend a lot of time entertaining you, but barely show the brand. People remember the commercial, but for the life of them they can’t remember what product it was for.
  3. Creates Affinity for the Brand: after watching the commercial, the viewer (either consciously or subconsciously) gains affinity for the brand. Perhaps the commercial uses a song, or an emotional moment to connect the viewer. Or maybe they use a celebrity personality to lend credibility.
  4. Ties the “Punchline” or “Gimmick” to the Benefit: for my money, the best ads are the ones that can tie the punchline or the “gimmick” of the commercial to the benefit of the product. In other words, is a feature of the product the very thing used to make the ad funny or memorable?

Here are examples of commercials (past and present) which I think score high marks in all of these areas.

“Where’s the Beef” (1984)

I think this ad scores high marks in all four categories. It’s memorable (27 years later, “where’s the beef” is part of our lexicon.) The brand, Wendy’s, is memorable. The little old ladies create affinity for the brand. And the punchline (the littlest old lady crying “Where’s the beef”) is directly tied to the benefit: Wendy’s hamburgers have more beef.

I’m a Mac. I’m a PC

Is there any doubt the “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” series has been one of the most successful in history. I can’t tell you how many spoofs of it I’ve seen (this Tom Cruise one is hilarious). So we know it scores high on the memorable┬áscale. Same for the remembering the brand and creating affinity for it (while at the same time poking fun at the competitor). And in every one, the benefit of the Mac is specifically tied to what makes them funny.

Here are 15 “I’m a Mac” ads in one video

Got Milk? (1994)

Another brilliant ad, mostly because of its simplicity. Created by the San Fran based firm of Goodby Silverstein, this ad has it all in spades. One of the great things I love about this ad is that in 60 seconds, with just visuals, it tells such a great story. A man obsessed with an insignificant subject matter, and the one time in his life where it may actually matter that he knows this obscure bit of trivia, he misses out on the opportunity because he didn’t have any milk. The story is so good, I frankly find it hard to believe it was directed by Michael Bay.

VW Vader Kid (2011)

I include this one because based on my few informal polls, this is the one commercial that seems to be on everyone’s list this year. I think it definitely scores high in memorability. And assuming the purpose is to demonstrate the car’s ability to turn on remotely, it scores extremely high connecting the “punchline” to the benefit. The only thing I’m not too sure about is the brand awareness. If people remember the brand, I’m not so much sure it’s because of the ad itself vs. the fact that people are re-watching it so many times. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

BMW’s “The Hire” Web Series (2001-2002)

This is kind of a cheat because this series was not a traditional commercial. But, this groundbreaking web series starring Clive Owen was most definitely meant to sell BMWs. Everything about it scores high in all four categories, particularly #4. The power, speed, precision, handling, and look of the BMW are all illustrated in the series.

This episode directed by Alejandro Gonz├ílez I├▒├írritu was one of the most visually interesting. And since I know a lot of photographers read my blog, I thought you’d appreciate this one.

What have been some your favorite commercials and why?

7 thoughts on “What Makes an Effective Commercial

  1. Sooooo many commercials fail at #2. I couldn’t tell you who did the the Vader car commercial, even though I liked it. I could watch it 5 times and probably not be able to tell you 10 minutes later. Almost every commercial I saw last night was like that, except for those Doritos commercials.

    Those Budweiser frogs are a perfect example of a commercial that’s impossible to forget about. The “gimmick” is frogs saying Bud-weis-er. Genius.

    1. You’re so on point Aaron. I was really torn about including the VW Vader commercial for the very reason you mentioned. I’m glad you made that point. So many cars have the ability to start remotely, so even the beneift/gimmick at the end is not unique to VW. I’m curious as to what others think.

      I’d disagree with you on the gimmick of the Budweiser frogs commercial though. Them saying “Bud-wei-ser” is not related to the benefit or “feature” of the drink. It is a great way to make you remember the brand though.

      Thanks for your great commentary.

  2. Ron,
    Great thoughts on what makes up a good commercial. I’ve got one advertising campaign in mind that came out recently that I think is absolutely genius. It’s the McDonald’s campaign on a yawn is a cry for an egg mcmuffin. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the commercials that made it genius:
    1 – The commercial was funny. The announcer makes you yawn as proof that you want an egg mcmuffin.
    2 – It’s kind of reprogramming your thinking so whenver you happen to yawn (which hey, guess when you yawn most – probably when you just wake up in the morning), you think to yourself, hey egg mcmuffin
    3 – I’ve caught other people yawning and commented that they must want an egg mcmuffin. What’s that, you don’t know what I’m talking about? I’m happy to share.

    I’d be interested to see McDonald’s numbers for egg mcmuffin sales within the past few months, but I’d bet they went quite a bit higher.

  3. I’m surprised Ridley Scott’s “1984” Apple ad didn’t make your list. I realize that it might fall short on a couple of your listed attributes, but it’s still talked about to this day.

    I loved the BMW series. “The Follow” by Wong Kar Wai is definitely my favorite, although it probably falls short on your criteria as well.

    1. Wow. You are sharp J! I actually almost posted both the videos you mentioned. I struggled with whether or not to post “1984.” But I already had one Apple commercial as an example, I didn’t want two. I feel the “I’m a Mac” ads are stronger examples of all 4 points, especially #4, tying the punchline to the benefit of the product. As wonderful as the “1984” ad is, you don’t really know from the commercial why you should buy a Mac.

      As for “The Follow”… I came this close to including it. In fact, I even had it embedded on the blog before publishing. It’s probably one of my favorite of the series. It’s such a beautiful film. And it’s an example where I feel voice over actually works! Plus you get Forrest Whitaker AND Mickey Rourke! But I switched it out and went for “Powder Keg” b/c 1) I know a lot of photogs read my blog and that story is based around a photog, and 2) “The Follow” doesn’t highlight as much of the car’s range of power, speed, and strength.

      Great comment. Thanks for reading.

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