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October 28, 2009
Is it a "Viral" or a TV Commercial and What's The Difference Anyway?

As a copywriter at Leo Burnett, I cut my teeth on writing and producing breakfast cereal commercials for Kellogg’s. Most writers (then and now) don’t consider these assignments potential award winners, yet it was desirable work for many reasons. Mainly, it taught us how to make TV commercials. You laugh, but learning how to write a 30-second spot with numerous mandatory elements, and then putting it together (shooting, editing, music and AVO), is something you have to do many times before you really get it. For that, these briefs were invaluable. We became pros. The carrot, of course, was the all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood to produce these commercials. Going on production provided more than just valuable training, it also gave us dinners at the Ivy and stately rooms at the Four Seasons. Beverly Hills was ours!

Times change. Making TVCs is not the right of passage it once was. Obviously, this can be attributed to the digital revolution as well as the recession. Changing consumer behavior and shrinking marketing budgets have taken a serious toll.

Still, the demand for commercial video continues. Yet the rules for creating video content are different than they used to be. You Tube and the like have given everyone the idea that making a commercial is now cheap, fast and easy. You know: viral. Consumers are generating popular content for next to nothing. Why, clients ask, should we spend six or even seven figures?

Because that’s what it costs. In general, an “A” commercial requires anywhere from 500k to well over a million dollars to produce. Packaging two or three provides obvious efficiencies but the numbers are high. Unlike “consumer generated comment” a typical shoot has over 50 people on its crew, not including agency and clients. It may require several days to produce. You do the math.

On the other hand, a so-called “viral” need only cost a few grand to make. Or less. Right?

Not likely. Cheap, fast and easy is a myth born out of confusion and ignorance. Twenty million people watched a sleazy chicken dancing around a cheesy set, and as an industry we all jumped to conclusions. “Give me one of those!” our clients screamed. We all screamed. Everybody wanted the next big thing for next to nothing.

First off, I don’t think “Subservient Chicken” was all that cheap to make. It only looked inexpensive. I wouldn’t be surprised if the price was low to mid six figures. Not to mention operating costs.

Fact is, viral hits like “Swear Jar” for Budweiser and the seminal BMW films “The Hire” cost as much as anything you’ll ever see on TV.

And so production heads are scratching their heads over how to manage. Maddening is the client who wants a “viral” budget instead of a “commercial” budget, as if they were two different things! It’s daunting.

What is quality then? If millions of people view a piss-poor piece of film does that make it a standard bearer? Thanks to You Tube, I do believe people are more tolerant of crappy looking film. On the other hand, Hi-Definition TV gives these same folks picture quality unheard of before. Are these opposing forces or unwitting allies?

Because of the Internet, our industry and its critics like to trumpet the death of the 30-second TV commercial. But think of it this way: the Internet is also another screen, which gives life to commercials. Millions of them!

Furthermore, consider the 21st century rogue-darling agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. They are rightly credited for taking advantage of the social web like no other agency but, if you count the touchdowns, most of their biggest gainers come from good, old-fashioned 30-second TV commercials. Like I said, daunting.

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Chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide Chicago, Steffan Postaer is responsible for its overall creative leadership and quality of the creative product. He’s received several prestigious awards, including a Kelly Award, Best of Show, Gold and Silver awards at the One Show, the Addys and a Cannes Gold Lion. Steffan has a novel about god and advertising and posts regularly on his blog, Gods of Advertising. Follow him on Twitter.

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