Learn the Art of Storytelling by Watching Commercials

Many producers research by watching movies, but movies don’t always provide the answers we’re looking for. We have to watch a lot of them for effective comparison. Another seriously effective way to learn how to tell stories is by watching commercials.

Tella Goodone does extensive research on the stories behind commercials. She spends a couple of hours each week watching prime time commercials, quality YouTube shorts and promos, and  tightly-edited TV series. She knows this expands her storytelling awareness, giving her the vision she needs to create video productions with clarity and economy, plus tricks to telling a great story. She knows commercials offer powerful and efficient storytelling examples. She views many of these mini-stories in much less time than it takes to watch a movie. She also knows researching commercials will tell her what is safe to edit out.

RESEARCH is Job #1

“During my commercial research I do the opposite of traditional TV viewers,” Goodone says. “I take breaks during the presentation and come back to watch the commercials.”

There are exceptions, she notes, where the show itself is a great learning tool. Tella points out that some bare-boned series are tightly controlled, moving the story along with a sense of pacing that never seems to drag or jump ahead.

“There are ways to discover such programming via search engines, but I also like a bit of serendipity. I try to avoid getting caught up in the story, focusing instead on how it’s being told. Ask yourself what directors and editors did or didn’t do that effectively moved the story along. What are they not telling me? Am I missing something?”

One method is watching each commercial first with the audio off. Do you still get the message? Another method is to close your eyes and listen only to the audio.

“If I listen to the audio and discover that I missed part of the story, then I ask why,” she said. “Is it bad that I have to see and hear? Should both elements complement each other or each stand on its own? There are no right or wrong answers but focusing on audio and video individually and together gives me a sense of what it takes to tell the story.

GRANDPA’S Home Movies

“Storytelling isn’t your grandpa’s production, or even great grandpa’s, where random shots of events were put together and called a movie,” says Goodone.

Home movies still can seem amateurish but some hobbyists are becoming quite sophisticated in their storytelling. Many of us can remember visitors and family groaning at the mention of a home movie session, as they are forced to watch long, boring footage that had nothing to do with the grandson’s soccer match.

“I watched some vacation footage of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. It was minute-after-minute, angle-after-angle of the same building. The camera was even tilted to accentuate the angle. There was some narrative recorded live by the shooter. Ouch!” Goodone said.

Any movie worth watching should have a good story line. Watching quality YouTube videos or professionally produced movies helps a videographer learn by example, as well as analysis. But commercials? What has watching commercials got to do with telling a story and how can we learn from them?

COMMERCIALS Have Only Seconds

Think about it. Commercials have to use every single little frame in a half-a-minute production to hook the viewers, keep their attention, tell about the product and entice them to want to buy.

“Watching with a critical eye,” she says, “taught me how to make a better, longer-format, video. I am confident that my productions have better pacing, are edited tighter and tell a  more interesting story since studying commercials, dissecting them to figure out why they work so well or why they don’t.”

Commercial creators have about three seconds to capture the audience’s attention before losing them to another break. Consider focusing on that first three-to-five seconds in your productions, whether intended for web delivery or other distribution, to create an opening viewers will not want to leave. As an experiment, try recording a night of prime time TV to capture lots of short videos to analyze before planning a production. Prime time TV carries the most expensive ad spots that likely feature the best-of-the-best productions.

“For kicks though,” Goodone muses, “you could record a couple of hours worth of those early morning commercials, if you’d like to compare quality to some of the more cheesy stuff that’s produced.”

Take your research seriously, she stresses. Learn to not resent this time but to appreciate the free classroom environment that will ensure a learning experience. After only a few times of doing this it no longer felt like a task. She schedules time available and looks forward to doing it now because it has proven effective.

SCRIPT Isn’t Everything

“There’s more to what is said than the visuals. Dialog, narration and music score are vital to a commercial, as they are with any video production. So are other, more subtle, production elements,” says Goodone.

She tries to analyze how editing helped with pacing, how transitions helped or hurt, how framing and shooting style, even color were applied to enhance the commercial’s story. Fast-paced commercials are usually for excitement, accentuated by audio, narrative tracks and music with a beat. These are usually auto commercials, ads for beer, sports and just about anything that appeals to teens. Goodone notes that the slower commercials focus more on telling a complete story but that it’s not always the case, referencing a car commercial where the adult child worries about the lack of fun in the parents’ lives, interspersing faster action where mom and dad are having the time of their lives as their grown child quietly assumes them sleeping.

Commercial creators have about three seconds to capture the audience’s attention before losing them to another break.

Taking some time to sit down and analyze the commercials is very enlightening. You’ll find that not all commercials appear to get it when it comes to appealing to certain age groups, lifestyles or demographics. You’ll discover that not all commercials for older viewers focus on health, retirement, finances or issues of security. Like the car commercial, there are ads for travel, destination trips, and even dating that focus on this age group. And they’re fast. It’s the same for athletic, active lifestyle, even racy commercials. Not all focus exclusively on quick pacing and excitement. Fragrance ads sometimes spin romance rather than excitement. Commercials for youth apparel aren’t always in your face. You’ll discover, though, that  they all, to a greater or lesser degree, follow a pattern, using lighting, angles, music and pacing to build and tell their story.

USING What You Learned

Goodone discovered a new set of challenges after studying commercial production. She says that while focusing on the storytelling process in commercials, she quickly realized the challenge for her would be expanding this tighter, more efficient, fast-paced approach to fit into longer productions.

“Even a five-minute production is a lot longer than 30 seconds,” she said. “And that’s short, even for a short film, so how do I apply what I’ve learned studying commercials, YouTube and bare-bones TV programming to work for me on longer videos?”

The key element is pacing. While all production elements have their use and effectiveness; from subtle to bright lighting, powerful music scores to soft, subliminal tracks; and a delivery that shouts or whispers, the varying pace goes a long way toward keeping her productions from becoming boring.

Using the 30-second commercial, I try to build my longer productions in blocks, using pacing to create a five-minute segment, a half-hour, then more,” Goodone says.

She’s learned to look at the whole story but to get there in sequences, by varying pace. This sense of rhythm is what will keep viewers interested and focused even if you’re not trying to get them to buy something in 30-seconds. The commercial industry is a multi-million dollar market, and successful ads tell stories well. All video producers can benefit from taking a break and sitting in an easy chair to watch commercials, now and again.



Commercials? Try YouTube!

YouTube commercials take advantage of less restrictive advertising rates to expand on than their 30-second cousins, but there is still a lot to learn about pacing and efficiency.

This is an energy drink commercial on YouTube: 2013 World of Red Bull. Watch for a head start on what good pacing can do for your production. Things don’t always have to be fast to excite or tell a story.

Gatorade tells a story, again using pacing, from game time to workout to dreams, you’ll find the story to be complete.

You might wade through some other commercials before seeing this After Effects Professional Template iPad commercial to see what a discordant soundtrack, together with some imaging that is too fast for some to absorb. But hey, it’s probably for younger people, right?

A tanning salon commercial tries, but appears to drop the ball. It could have been shorter and removed distracting elements to more effectively explain the salon’s offerings.

Want some great examples? Search YouTube for “popular professional ads.”


Contributing editor Earl Chessher is a veteran career journalist, independent video producer and author of video marketing and production books.

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