How to write a 30-second TV commercial scriptEvery copywriter longs for the opportunity to write a TV commercial. But the type of commercial you’llend up writing isn’t what you think it will be.Unless you work at an ad agency or video production house, you’re not going to come anywhere closeto writing a script for the next NIKE commercial.You might get the opportunity to write a direct response or DRTV commercial. But you’re more likelyto write spots for shoe stores, neighborhood banks, used car dealers, furniture outlets, fruit markets,and other local businesses.Not too impressive, I know, but there’s a ton of small businesses who need these kind of TV spots.And someone has to write the scripts. Right?It might as well be you.Understanding Local TV AdvertisingTV commercials are not like other media, such as print or websites.A reader browsing a website has plenty of time to absorb information and can even reread copy that isinteresting or informative.However, TV commercials happen in real time. Most local spots run 30 seconds. That’s all the time youhave to tell the viewer about whatever you’re selling. When it’s over, it’s over.Of course, an advertiser will run commercials more than once, so viewers may be able to see yourspot several times. However, the number of times it runs is out of your control. So you shouldn’t relyon repetition to get your message across. It should be clear and complete even if seen just once.It’s also important to remember that the small businesses who run local TV ads don’t have a bigbudget. The owners usually operate brick-and-mortar stores and want to attract local customers. Yourcommercial can’t waste time on clever visuals or dialog. It must introduce the business quickly andgive viewers a reason to go to the store.The 30-Second TV Commercial FormulaThere are many ways to structure a TV commercial, but for our purposes, let’s stick to the standard“voice over” spot. This means that an announcer reads about 30 seconds of copy accompanied bysynchronized video. (Technically, a 30-second commercial is 28.5 seconds. You lose about one and ahalf seconds to fade the video up at the beginning and down at the end.)So you will write a script consisting of two elements: the audio (announcer’s voice over) and thevideo.Click to download a pdf of this template.Most writers use a specially formatted TV script template for this, a page with the Audio on one sideand the Video on the other. You can see the template I use here.If there is anything like a formula for writing a local 30-second TV script, it’s this:
1. Say it.2. Explain it.3. Repeat it.SAY IT.With only 30 seconds to work with, you don’t have much time to build a mood or be clever. You mustget to the point with the first sentence. Come right out and say what the spot is going to be about.“Save 50 percent on all living room furniture at Finley’s Furniture!”“Sun Bank offers you the lowest rate home equity loans in town.”“Buy your dream car at Nolte Chevrolet for just one dollar down!”The lead sentence in a commercial is like the headline in a print ad. It must get the viewer’s attention,select the appropriate audience for the message, and make the viewer want to know more.Along with the announcer speaking this lead sentence, you will need to show a visual to go along withit. If the commercial is about saving 50 percent at Finley’s Furniture, you could show an attractive setof furniture with the words “Save 50%” on the screen.Words on a TV screen are generally called “chyron” or “CG” for character generator. So when youwrite the announcer’s first sentence in the audio column, you will also write instructions for the videoand CG in the Video column.EXPLAIN IT.After you SAY IT, you need to EXPLAIN IT. If your lead sentence is successful, you now have theattention of the viewer and must spend a few seconds sharing additional details.If your lead sentence is “Save 50 percent on all living room furniture at Finley’s Furniture,” you couldshow various brand name pieces of furniture with audio that names each one.Or to keep it simple, the audio may be nothing more than “Save 50% off traditional furniture. Save50% off modern furniture. Save 50% off sectionals, tables, and lamps.” And so on.REPEAT IT.Finally, after you SAY IT and EXPLAIN IT, you should REPEAT IT. This sounds pretty simple, but a lotof writers forget this.Remember that your audience is not necessarily a captive one. Attention spans are very, very short.With remote controls and hundreds of channels to choose from, you can also expect many viewers tocome into your spot late. They may be interested in what you’re talking about, but if you don’t repeatyour “headline,” you run the risk of loosing a sale.Often you just need to repeat the idea in the lead sentence and, since you’re probably urging peopleto show up at a store at a particular time, give the location and time. Like this: “Save 50 percent on
every piece of living room furniture in the store. This weekend only at Finley’s Furniture. 123 MainStreet in downtown Groveport.”On the screen, you could show “Save 50%” plus the date and address, along with a picture of theoutside of the store.Quick Tip For Writing Local TV CommercialsOkay, I know a commercial like this isn’t very sophisticated. It doesn’t take a genius to write one.That’s why the hardest part is resisting the urge to be creative. You have a job to do, usually to drivebuyers to a store location. And more often than not, the more creative you try to be, the more likelyyour commercial will fail.What you have to learn is how to build the words, images, and CG so they deliver a clear, completemessage in just 30 seconds. So here’s my tip: Set up your DVR or video recorder to capture a fewdozen local TV ads. Then watch them carefully and transcribe the audio and video images.After doing this a few times, you’ll start to get a sense for how local TV commercials are put together.Eventually you’ll be able to write a script on your own. It may not be an award winner, but it willprobably be good enough to get the job done.My rule of thumb:The more people need to use the storyboard - the more elaborate and communicative it needs to be.If its a quick sketch you made for yourself alone - just make sure YOU will be able to understand it a week after youvedrawn it.If its for many other people to use - make it as communicative as possible, even print the text under the panes to make sureits readable. Remember that you wont be in the room to explain what you meant!
Instructional Objectives: The student will learn about television commercials and will be ableto classify/categorize viewed commercials into one of four Commercial Types (Formats).Time Required: 60 MinutesAdvance Preparation:Prepare 4 charts labeled as follows – General Product Ad, Self-Promoting Ad, Political Ad, andPublic Service Announcement (“PSA”).Materials Required: Chart paper, markers, magnets, and post-it notes (3”x5”).Aim: What are the four different Commercial Types (Formats)?Motivation: Have students break into groups of 5. Say - “I’d like you to work together to comeup with a list of 10 commercials on television that you love or hate, or that just stand out in yourmind for any reason at all.” Allow students about 5 minutes to come up with their lists.Ask class to share some of the commercials on their lists. Ask - “What is the purpose of each ofthese commercials? (They try to sell you something – a product, service, or candidate).Say - “Every commercial falls into one of four Commercial Types. Today we are going to learnabout these four different Commercial Types.”Show students Commercial Types you have listed individually on chart paper (or chalkboard).Below is the information you will need on each: 1. General Product Ads – These are commercials for products such as soap, cereal, toys, cars, etc. Examples: Toyota , Got-Milk, Barbie, Burger King. 2. Self-Promoting Ads – These are commercials promoting tv shows, movies, news programs, or events. Examples: “Rosie,” “ABC News,” or “Monday Night Football.” 3. Political Ads – These are commercials for politicians. They include positive or negative information about a candidate running for office. 4. Public Service Announcement (“PSAs”) – These are service announcements to the public (viewing audience). PSAs don’t sell you anything – they offer free advice, bring important information to your attention, offer assistance, teach you, etc. Examples: anti-drug commercials, suicide help lines, free breast cancer screenings, and Be-A-Mentor.Say – “Let’s start with the easiest, the Political Ad. What are they “selling” in thiscommercial/ad?” Discuss any recent political ads students have seen. Continue having studentstry to guess what other commercial/ads are “selling.”
Continue your lesson, having students try to guess what kinds of commercials fall underthe Commercial Types learned.Activity: Have students work in groups (previously arranged) to classify their list of 10commercials into the four Commercial Types learned (allow 5 – 7 minutes). This can be done intheir notebooks.Next, have the students come up with 3 more existing commercials for each of thefour Commercial Types. Distribute post-it notes to each group and instruct them to write eachcommercial description on a separate post-it note. Each group should end up with 12 post-itnotes (3 commercials for each of 4 Commercial Types =12). Allow 5 to 7 minutes for this partof the activity. After the allotted time, ask each group to come up and place its commercials onthe appropriate Commercial Types charts.After all groups have posted their commercials on the charts, review each chart to make sure thestudents have categorized properly. Example: 1-800-USLAWYERS is not a PSA. Why not? (Because in PSA’s, you are not asked to buy any product or service). Or, Why is a “Rosie” commercial a self-promoting ad? (Because the commercial ispromoting a show).Spend about 10 to 15 minutes on reviewing this activity.ay TwoInstructional Objectives: The students will be able to classify commercials viewed in classunder one or several Commercial Writing Styles.Time Required: 60 Minutes Advanced Preparation: Videotape commercials from television. Commercials should be tapedat different times of the day – early morning, mid afternoon (during soaps), after school, andduring the evening to ensure that each of the Commercial Types discussed on Day One isrepresented at least 3 or 4 times.From Internet, print out notes on Commercial Writing Styles –http://teenwriting.about.com/library/weekly/aa091197.htm?rnk=r3&terms=commercialsMaterials Required: Commercial Writing Styles handout (blank; see below), Television, VCR,videotaped commercials, charts of Commercial Types (Formats) made on Day One.Aim: What are some of the writing styles used in commercials.Procedure: Distribute a blank Commercial Writing Styles handout to each student. Explainthat every commercial is carefully and cleverly written to make you want to buy products or aservice, watch a show, or vote or not vote for someone.
Review the blank Commercial Writing Styles list with the students.Review each of the Commercial Writing Styles with the students. The students should fill ininformation about each writing style as dictated by you.Activity: Have students watch one of your videotaped commercials. Ask students,“Which Commercial Writing Style was used in this commercial?” Discuss why it is a particularwriting style and not another. Please note, some commercials fall under more than one writingstyle. Share this with the students.Watch more of your videotaped commercials and discuss their Commercial Writing Styles. Youcan also use this time to review Commercial Types.Evaluation: Test Prepared for Commercial Writing Styles and CommercialTypes. NOTE: This is a 2 page test and is set for landscape print.Day Three Instructional Objectives: The students will learn the steps for producing a TV commercial andwill assist teacher in developing a Script Draft for producing a commercial for the teacher’sproduct, “It’s Ripe.”Time Required: 60 MinutesAdvanced Preparation: Prepare fictional product for students to write a commercial. Materials Required: “It’s Ripe” soda bottle, a blank Script Draft Sheet (see below), chart paperand markers.Aim: How do we write our own television commercial? Say – “Today we are going to write our own commercial for my product, It’s Ripe soda. (Showstudents sample bottle.)Say – “I’d like to make a fabulous commercial for my soda. It is going to be a TVcommercial. Together we must prepare a checklist for our commercial. Our checklist, oroutline, will help us organize our work for our commercial. What should that check listcontain?”Days Four, Five and SixInstructional Objectives: Students will learn how to complete a Script Sheet and Storyboard Sheet forteacher’s television commercial, and will develop and produce their own.
Time Required: 120 minutes (not including videotaping)Advance Preparation: Reproduce class sets of Script Sheets, Storyboard Sheets and Shot CompositionSheets, and make a transparency of each.Click here to download Word or Excel files of:Script Draft SheetScript SheetShot Composition Sheet and Storyboard Sheet(Right click - choose "save target as")Materials Required: Overhead projector, Video camera, blank video tapeAim: How do we use our Script Draft Sheets, Script Sheets, Storyboard Sheets and Shot CompositionSheets to produce our commercial?Procedure:Distribute Script Sheets, Storyboard Sheets and Shot Composition Sheets to students.Work with class to complete a Script Sheet and Storyboard Sheet for the “It’s Ripe”Commercial. Do this in the following order: Introduce blank Script SheetThis sheet tells us what we will see and what we will hear during the commercial. Review difference between video and audio section of the Script Sheet.. Video – What camera shots will we use? Who/What will we see? Audio – Who/What will we hear during the commercial – voices, music, sound effects? Show Script Sheet with audio section completed
Your Script Draft Sheet (from Day 3) should be used to complete the audio section. Add music cues, sound effects, and directions for actors where necessary. Review Shot Composition Sheet and explain why it is used (It shows camera shots and abbreviations necessary for Script Sheet video section).Complete video section of the Script Sheet. Ask, “What shot do we want to use at the opening of ourcommercial? At the end of our commercial? Introduce the Storyboard Sheet The boxes on the Storyboard (called video boxes) represent the video portion of the Script Sheet. A pencil sketch is put in each box to represent camera shots used. The scripts audio is written just below each video box. Work with the students to complete the Storyboard for the “It’s Ripe” Script Sheet. Do a comparison of the Script Sheet and the Storyboard. Does the information match up? It MUST.The “It’s Ripe” commercial is ready to be videotaped. Select 2 students for roles of Sabrina andMatt. Provide each with Script Sheets for the commercial so that they can rehearse. Select a student tovideotape the commercial and provide him/her with the Script Sheet and Storyboard Sheet. Videotape the commercial. This should be done “live” with other students watching the process offollowing the Script Sheet and Storyboard.View the videotaped commercial and compare it to the Script Sheet and Storyboard Sheet. Do theymatch? They should.Students are now ready to produce their own commercials.
Additional Notes/Suggestions:1 discusses the importance of a good slogan in a commercial. Students may want to include slogans intheir commercials.Students should be encouraged to design and develop their own products. Product designs must beneat and attractive.If students are working in cooperative groups, make sure you have an “artist” in each group.If student commercials are Political Ads or Self-Promoting Ads, they should still be for fictionalpoliticians/movie/talk shows. If students are producing their commercials at home, they should be allowed at least 2 weeks (includingweekends) to complete the production of their commercials. Students should be given 3 grades - onefor the Script Sheet, one for the Storyboard and one for the videotaped commercial. Students who do not have video cameras have the option of taping during lunch or performing“live.” Students must still complete Script Sheet and Storyboard as if they are videotaping.Have fun!!