copywriting for commercials

Why Most Commercials Keep Making the Same Mistakes

Ricardo Castano IV
September 12, 2018

Working in an industry you patronize can sometimes be disillusioning. Any of us who’ve worked in retail or food service knows that discovering the inner workings of a commercial industry comes with knowing how easily those workings can be mismanaged or neglected.

For example, you’re not going to be able to forget when somebody at your favorite restaurant serves a “homemade” item that you now know is frozen and microwaved. It might still taste the same, but you’ll always know the truth.

It’s the same with advertising. We all might see a crap commercial and roll our eyes, but when you’re working at an ad shop, not only do you see the bad ad, but you see exactly why it’s bad, and – here’s the part that drives you insane – how you could have done it better. Let’s talk about how the advertisements we see go wrong, and what can be done to avoid them.

Focus Your Commercial…

Every great ad requires a great concept. When you see a bad commercial, chances are it lacks focus conveying the benefits of its product to the potential customer.

A lot of ads are so concerned with keeping people’s attention that, when they have it, they tend to forget what they’re advertising. Take for instance Burger King’s 1985 campaign starring “Herb the Nerd,” a pencily-looking guy with Coke-bottle frames that’s never eaten a Whopper before.

While the campaign had its own problems with making the rules clear, it’s the focus here that really holds this back. All the commercial cares about is presenting Herb as this outsider, not about why Burger King is good.

Why do commercials like this keep happening? It’s because the people who make them end up valuing uniqueness over actual benefit.

…But Not Too Much!

On the contrary, it’s totally possible to bring a commercial into being that is the opposite of unfocused. A pretty picture can be zoomed into irrelevance if someone ends up looking too closely, and sometimes that person is an ad team.

Many of us remember (and make fun of) HeadOn, the topical headache remedy from the late 2000s. While it is in all respects barely a commercial, it’s a perfect example of over-focus. It’s HeadOn. It applies directly to the forehead. Are we doing it for any reason? No one knows.

Why do commercials like this keep happening? It’s because the people who make them think that repetition of features is just as good as, or better, than explaining the benefits.

Gimmicks Don’t Equal Focus

The perennial tome “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” by Luke Sullivan is required reading for any copywriter, and is pretty valuable to content writers and anyone else who wants their words to get better.

Sullivan’s first complaint (out of many) revolves around the famous ad mascot for Charmin: Mr. Whipple. And it’s one that makes perfect sense – if you’re focusing your ad on a person or some creation that loves or uses your product, you will have to split time and focus on the benefits to explore the character, no matter how thinly it’s done. You know, like a one-note store clerk who tells people to not squeeze toilet paper.

Why do commercials like this keep happening? Because people think that a mascot will always be the superior way to convey a product’s benefits.

Trust

At the core of a lot of bad decisions is a distrust of ideas. Clients who are given a budget by their superiors come to an ad agency to create something, but with a hope of getting a return on their investment, pressure the company to stick to traditions or things they think will work.

And while they are completely within their rights to behave this way, it does mean that better ideas, or more unique ones, at least, might not see the light of day. Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially when the current ad campaigns have stagnated.

How can we get better at this mistake? By coming together as a team and trusting each other’s ideas.

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