6 Mistakes to Avoid When Directing a Spec Commercial

Ah, the good ol’ “Spec Commercial”  If you’re a filmmaker looking to break into commercial directing, you’re gonna need a few of these on your reel.  A spec commercial is simply a “fake” commercial that a filmmaker makes to show ad agencies and companies that he’s worthy of hiring.

Needless to say, if you want to be taken seriously as a director, your spec commercials better look as close to the real thing as possible!

After years of watching many many (mostly horrible) spec commercials and having just recently finished 3 (hopefully not so horrible) specs of my own, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: Most filmmakers have no idea how to make a commercial.

Now there’s a ton of great filmmakers out there, but without any advertising experience, their spec commercials usually end up feeling like specs and not like the real thing.

Here are 6 common mistakes I’ve seen over and over again – avoid these and you’ll be a few steps ahead of the competition:

1. Don’t use a generic product benefit

Here’s an idea…how about two people fighting over the last bag of Doritos?  Oh or how about a really hot girl drools over an average Joe just cause he’s holding a Bud Light?  Sound familiar?  Yeah, these concepts are played-out commercial stereotypes by now, but they’re still being done to death in spec commercials!

The problem is that these lame ideas are coming from lame product benefits.  If the product benefit you’ve chosen is, “Doritos are so good” then where do you go from there?  “They’re so good…people will fight over them?  Guys will attract hot girls with them?  You can’t stop eating them?”  A generic product benefit leads to a lot of generic ideas.

In the beginning, spend some time choosing a product benefit that’s more specific, that says something unique about the product.  Instead of “Doritos are tasty” try “Doritos are bolder than a snack should be.”  Or instead of “Stride Gum is delicious”, use “Stride Gum is ridiculously long lasting.”

Already you can start seeing some ideas, ones that haven’t been done a million times already.  Choosing a strong, unique product benefit will automatically push you down a more creative, less-traveled path.

2. Stop going over the 30 second mark

Almost every single commercial on TV is exactly 30 seconds long.  It’s an industry standard.  And yet, most spec commercials top out at random lengths, :47, :53, 1:15.  This madness needs to end.

By not restricting your commercial to exactly 30 seconds, you’re showing that you lack one of the most crucial skills to commercial directing: precise timing.  In the world of commercials, you’ve got to adhere to very exact time restrictions.  So treat your spec like the real thing and show them that you can make every single second count.

Now you might be thinking, “Why not make a :60 spot like the ones I’ve seen on TV?  The more time, the better right?” Not necessarily.  I’ve seen hundreds of :60 spec commercials but every single one would’ve improved if they’d been cut down to :30.

Time limits aren’t all bad.  They force you to keep only what you need and cut out everything else.  Impose a 30 second limit on yourself, and I guarantee you’ll have a tighter, better paced, and more focused spot.

3. Sexual innuen-don’t

In creative advertising, more often than not, sexual innuendo is the easiest, laziest, and most unoriginal solution.  Don’t believe me?  In 10 seconds I bet you can come up with at least 3 lame sexual references, just think looong and hard (see?).

Commercials based on sexual innuendo are often just a cheap laugh on a joke that’s already way overplayed.  Unless you can twist it in a clever and original way, just don’t do it.

4. “Yeah, it’s that good”

No no no, it’s not.  The most overused tagline in spec commercial history.  Use it, and you automatically throw yourself into the “hopelessly unoriginal” pile.  Please, it’s not worth it!

5. Keep the tone consistent with the brand’s core values

If you’re creating a Coca-Cola ad, it better feel heartwarming, family friendly, and uplifting…or it just won’t feel like a Coke ad.

These brands have spent years cultivating and shaping their brand values and if your commercial isn’t aligned with them, your spot will seem “off” and out of touch. Save that edgy concept with the sexy dance number for another brand (or throw in the latest pop celebrity and make it a Pepsi ad, hey!).

6. Throw in the tail-end only when necessary

You know what I’m talking about.  It seems like the commercial is over, the motion graphics have just played, the logo is fading, the music is dying down…but wait!  In the last few seconds, the commercial suddenly cuts back to show one last “look” or “hilarious moment”. 

These tail-ends show up on TV commercials all the time, so you should throw them in your spec right?

Nope.  Stop thinking of these tail-ends as necessary for that “real commercial feel”.  As with everything else in film, use it only if it adds value.

Most likely, your ad has already hit it’s high note by then, and a tail-end would only water things down.  If you throw in a tail-end shot, that will be the last impression you leave on the viewer so make sure it’s a damn good one!

So if you’ve been following along, congratulations, you’ll avoid the mistakes that so many unfortunate souls couldn’t escape.  Now good luck with the hard part, go out there and make a kickass commercial!

  • nice list, Chris! smart, informative, confident, and entertaining…I wish I was a filmmaker…

    • Nah Jarell, I’d rather be a smooth R&B singer any day of the week! Let’s trade talents…and I wouldn’t mind taking that A-list producer too haha

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  • Ben S.

    Thanks for posting this and Adam Witten’s piece. I’m newly out of film school and starting the commercial path, and it’s awesome that you guys take the time to give us green filmmakers some tips.

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  • Hilariously written and totally on-the-mark post. I know I’m almost two years late to comment (and I think I’ve seen your other posts on the topic), but I too have seen so many bad spec specs. There’s lots more good advice from Jeff Nicosia, co-founder of Group 101 Spots, here: http://specbank.com/nicosia_interview Enjoy.

  • Thank you for this article. I especially liked your sixth point when you talked about adding in the tail-end. I think that makes a commercial so much funnier. It’s unexpected and catches you by surprise.

  • Yeah when I’ve seen a lot of spec ads, they seemed almost more “goofy” than actually clever or creative. I’ve heard many people suggest that if you can’t come up with a great idea, approach a junior copywriter at an ad agency for rejected ideas for one of their clients’ big spots. Some of the rejected ideas are still great stuff, they just weren’t ultimately what the client chose to do. While I understand the whole “spec ad” idea, I honestly think a lot of people would be well served making a real commercial for a real company, pro bono, and run your ideas by the client, understand their brand, go through the whole actual process. Of course, it might be likely to be lame if it’s something like a local salon, but in big cities there are regional companies that are still pretty solid names with a good brand presence that might not have recent commercial advertising work. I remember my first spec ad was an assignment from film school and I was pretty annoyed at the cheesiness of the spot that our cinematographer teacher had written. I just thought it was incredibly lame, so I decided to change the concept at the last 5 seconds of the commercial and make it my own. It was still one of my proudest moments even though the quality sucked pretty badly because we were all inexperienced crew. He had this concept where two people are meeting in the alley, looking around nervously, and one is like, “You got it?” “Yeah, I got it.” He reaches in his pocket, while the other says, “Is it the real thing?” “Yeah, it’s the real thing,” and pulls out Coca Cola. First of all, as you said, Coke would never advertise like that. It wouldn’t happen. So clearly the whole project was a joke and just an excuse to have us go out and shoot. I simply changed the last few seconds — the Coke can was bought from a novelty store nearby and the lid unscrews, revealing a hidden compartment. Inside, we put a bag of flour, so we added no dialogue at all, but instead of the commercial just ending, our main guy screws off the cap, checks the baggie of coke (flour), and walks away. It really was a drug deal, after all!