Is it a “viral” or is it a commercial and what’s the difference anyway?

October 14, 2009

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Birds of a feather?

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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3 Responses to “Is it a “viral” or is it a commercial and what’s the difference anyway?”

  1. Liz said

    Very smart thinking.

    Personally, I’ve always believed concept is king and everything else follows – art direction, copy, casting, set design. If you have a brilliant concept that demands a rough-around-the-edges execution, so be it. (I always think of the wonderful FedEx super bowl ad that showed no more than a test pattern and some scrolling type.) If you lead with execution, you’re doomed to fail.

    That said, the biggest challenge to success of viral work is the oddly pervasive belief that if we build it they will come; if it is entertaining enough it will be passed along. It just doesn’t work that way. We can’t stick 30 second ads on You Tube and assure clients that they’ll “go viral.” And yet I hear it so often these days it’s amazing.

  2. SRP said

    And then there’s the notion that, if passed in numbers, all virals are good. What about the flu? Passed around by millions but not good at all.

  3. […] Viral or Commercial? What’s the difference? November 19, 2009 Posted by Kashyap in Articles. trackback How many times has it occurred to you or your client that virals are cheaper than TV commercials? Once? More than once? Stefan busts some myths like that which can screw up your campaign, in his post on CP+B blog. […]

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