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August 12, 2006
HeadOn--and Production Values Off

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the commercial for a headache remedy called “HeadOn.” To most advertising creatives, it’s the epitome of a bad spot. It defies everything we’ve ever believed goes into a great ad. It’s monotonous, repetitive, and poorly filmed and edited. And after you’ve finished watching the spot, you’re still not exactly sure what the product is, or what it does.

Turns out, the elements of the HeadOn ad were completely intentional. Focus groups who were shown the concepts remembered this one the most. Apparently, repetition works. And repetition works. And repetition works.

In addition, what makes this spot so memorable (or impossible to get out of your head) is that it feels so out of place on television, in a commercial pod surrounded by big-budget, big-brand spots and slick network promos. It looks like something cooked up in a cable-access TV studio circa 1986. Even local furniture dealer ads look good in comparison.

Trust me: There’s more work like HeadOn coming. To your TV screen and your computer screen.

That’s because as a society, we’re getting used to badness. The rise of consumer-generated media on sites like YouTube is an indication that we’re getting accustomed to seeing low-level TV & video productions. A cheesy backdrop and a little picture fuzz doesn’t faze anybody anymore.

It’s more than a trend—it’s part of the democratization of technology. I believe it started with "America’s Funniest Home Videos." And then spread to the hand-held faux spontaneity of reality TV. Anyone with a camera and a computer has the power to spread a message to the world.

And on the web, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between professional and amateur video. Even great ads with great production values can look inferior with compressed computer video and smaller viewing screens. Which can diminish the impact of a message or concept even as exponentially more people get to see it.

These days, on television, you either have no production values or lots of ‘em. Woe be unto any creative who’s had to produce a TV spot on a medium-sized budget, somewhere in the middle. Those spots always look cheap next to expensive, big-budget spots, and they doesn’t possess the coolness factor you can sometimes achieve with spots whose concepts get enhanced by a homemade look & feel.

At a time when TV as we traditionally know it has a diminished effect but video content is exponentially increasing, ultimately we need to decide what matters. The idea? The production? The form of distribution?

Creatives can still get great jobs if they have a reel of TV spots featuring million-dollar budgets and 5-cent ideas. I don’t know how long that may hold true, because outside of our insular advertising business, the buzz no longer centers on the wow factor of slickly produced TV ads. HeadOn commands attention. The wacky history-of-dance guy. David Hasselhoff’s new video. And so on.

Maybe it’s good news that the rise of the web is finally showing us that content matters more than production values. If it really takes hold, I have a recommendation.

HeadOn. Apply directly to your creative director.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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