30 second stories [Superbowl Ads]

by Toni McGee Causey

Today is February 1st, 2009. Superbowl Sunday. It is the day the Steelers play the Cardinals.

[Tangent alert! I have never quite understood this whole mascot-naming-thing, because one would think, given the type of team one is naming a mascot for, that the person or committee, heaven help us, who picks the mascot would've thought about just how it sounds being shouted out by a stadium full of drunk and rowdy fans. Go Cardinals! just doesn't have the visceral impact of Go Tigers or Go 'Gators or even Go Wildcats. I mean, seriously, when they picked out the mascot, were they all revved up over the idea of a bird pecking the other team to death or what? Of course, I include the Saints in the dumber than grass category of football mascots. It's not exactly like we're gonna pray our way to a championship.]

Ahem. Okay, I got that outta my system. Maybe. 

[reboot] So, today is the day of the big game, the big clash of gladiators. The classic struggle of David (Cardinals) vs. Goliath (Steelers). The timeless tale of…

Aw, hell. Superbowl Sunday. The day the coolest ads air nationally for instant hall of fame or shame. I know there have been a lot of years I couldn't have cared less about who played, but I checked in (pre-internet) to see the ads or (post internet) skipped the game altogether and waited for the ads to be put up online. This year, NBC announced that they had sold all 67 spots for a record-breaking $206 million.

I tend to fast forward through most commercials 364 days of the year, so why the avid curiosity? It's not just about the cost–a reported $2.4 to 3 million per 30-second spot. There's debate as to whether that sort of cost can ever be recouped by an ad. Can something that expensive really drive enough new customers to a product or service to make it worth the advertiser's cost? Well, some companies out there think so, though I'd be hard pressed to believe that this commercial–though it's one of my favorites–really drove a lot of consumers to their product:

And I sorta doubt this one had consumers running out to buy their product:

And I honestly cannot fathom that there was enough profit margin per item that warranted a $2.5 million 30 second spot back in 2006:

Some are just plain gross. This next one could not possibly have paid off:

(I see their website is still around. Maybe I'm not their target audience.)

But the really good commercials are practically priceless… we'll remember them for years. Maybe that means we'll buy more of that product when confronted with options at the store, or have more goodwill toward the company. 

I can't judge a commercial's success based on saturation data or spikes in sales or anything quantifiable like that. But as a writer, the thing that impresses the hell out of me is that these 30 second spots start out as simply an "idea." Maybe there's a goal to the idea, but most of the commercials tell a story, and tell it quickly. Commercials have a structure in the same way novels or shot stories or films do–they just have to do it all in 30 seconds. They have to capture your attention (set up), create interest (conflict) and have a resolution (finale). 

Budweiser's group does this exceptionally well, year after year. (The brand is so well-known, they are no longer trying to educate the public about the fact that Budweiser sells beer… they are trying to make the public feel good about choosing a Bud whenever they have the choice in beer.) One of last year's favorites:

Or, they make you smile and associate their beer with a sense of humor:

Humor, in fact, goes over really well:

(And seriously, I don't even drink Bud. Ever. But somebody over there has a great sense of humor.)

Writing a commercial is (obviously) an art unto itself. I have commercials I personally loathe, no matter the fact that they're beautifully shot and follow a three-act structure and are memorable. [We are about to start the Valentine hostage, er, holiday celebration, wherein men around the country are made to feel like crap if they don't fork over money for diamonds for the love of their lives, and women are made to feel like crap if their guy doesn't love them enough to blow a wad of money on a shiny rock. There is no sense of humor about these things, no irony, no tongue-in-cheek… just determination to bludgeon dollars out of bank accounts, using guilt. I think shiny things are fine, but let's keep some perspective.]

Anyway, writing a commercial requires such a compressed, efficient story-telling skill, they're worth examining because the really memorable ones can teach us a great deal about good story-telling. 

Set up: The opening image sets up the world:

In the rock/paper/scissors, we see an opening scene of a family-styled gathering for a picnic: sunshine, low hum of friendly people talking in clusters, picnic tables, food. This is a friendly world, one where trust is implied.

Inciting incident: Two men both grab for the last iced beer.

Conflict: Finding a fair (implied trust) method of solving who should get the beer. They opt for the tried and true friendly "rock, paper, scissors" game.

Climax: One "throws" paper, which technically "covers" or "beats" rock, but the other throws an actual rock

Resolution: The cleverest player wins.

(Message–even friendship is not worth losing the last beer over… or, smart people get the last beer, so if you're drinking a Bud, you're smart.)

The harsh reality of a commercial is that they only have a few seconds, at best, to set up the world and the conflict. We have a tad bit more room to set up our stories in our novels, but in all honesty, we don't have that much more room. I've talked to editors and agents, and sat in on panels where they've been discussing reading something new and the cold harsh truth is, we have about five pages to capture their attention. In that five pages, we need to set up the world, the characters, and the potential conflict. We don't necessarily have to show the main conflict, the inciting incident that soon, but we have to show inherent conflict in the world, something that's going to imply that a bigger problem is about to beset these characters. 

Why must we move so quickly? Well, we're selling something, whether we like it or not… we're selling them on continuing to read the next five pages, and the next five after that. The best novels don't just describe a world… they describe a world in conflict. If the point of the story is that an idyllic world is about to be upset, then some foreshadowing is necessary to keep the agent or editor from eye-rolling over the bucolic boring stasis of the world. We need to create anticipation a problem. 

The dating scene is a great example: this is a romantic date, with candles and beautiful table setting and each person seems happy to be there. But the voice-over claims that "breathing fire" is one of the new advantages to drinking Bud Light and as the guy very romantically breathes flame and lights the first candle, we are already anticipating a problem. We're already willing to forgive them their perfect world because we know it's about to be upset. 

As we're writing, we have to look at every scene for imagery, (world), conflict and stakes. Each moment has to build on the last. The "build" can be subtle or big, dark or ironic, humorous or sad, but the tension has to keep increasing, or you've reached a plateau and the reader is going to feel it and get bored. 

So, enough for today–I'm sure some of you are rooting for your favorite team (GO STEELERS) and some of you are goofing around on the internet (hi there) and some of you are off working or playing with the family. If you want to check out past years commercials, this is a very convenient site where ten years' worth are easy-to-click: Superbowl Ads

So how about you… what is YOUR favorite ad from the last few years? Or which one do you loathe?

18 thoughts on “30 second stories [Superbowl Ads]

  1. Louise Ure

    Hi Toni,

    As a veteran of more than 30 years in the industry, I adore watching ads. And that notion of having more than 30 seconds or 60 words (the average in a 30 second spot) was one of the more daunting aspects of writing for me when I started.

    My favorite? Maybe some of the great Tabasco spots over the years.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Hey Louise… when I had the idea for this one, my first thought was “Louise should write this one… she’ll know way-the-hell-more about the process.” 😉 I think the DVR killed commercials for me–it’s too easy to skip through them now, or fast-forward through the boring car rental types and miss the funny ones.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    Here’s the thing: I remember most of those ads. i remember the set up the incident, the resolution…but I can never remember the product. And I’m not alone. When I hear people talking about really clever commercials, it’s always “hey have you seen that commercial where the guy hooks his nipples up to the car battery?” “Yeah, who’s that for again?” So I have to wonder if it’s really worth all that money.

  4. JT Ellison

    Fabulous, Toni!

    I always look for the Budweiser Clydesdales. They choke me up for some reason, so that’s always the pinnacle of Superbowl watching for me. And I don’t drink beer, so they’re hitting me at a totally different level.

    Go Steelers!

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Gotta go with the E-Trade baby commercials. The voice is perfect.My husband’s team is the Steelers so we’re of course watching every second of the game. I’m taping Puppy Bowl V on Animal Planet channel for later viewing.

  6. R.J. Mangahas

    Wow Toni. I have a few adds that I really enjoyed. I like the Sobe commercial with the lizards dancing to “Thriller.” I also like the Coke commercial thqt had the balloons of Stewie and Underdog both going for a bottle of Coke, and out of nowhere, a Charlie Brown balloon comes along and takes it. Good ole’ Charlie Brown finally wins.For anyone interested in seeing some of my favorite commercials from last year, they are posted on my blog.


  7. R.J. Mangahas

    Great post, Toni. Two commercials I liked from last year were the Sobe commercial with the lizards dancing to “Thriller” and the Coke ad with the big balloons: Underdog and Stewie are both going after a bottle when from out of nowhere Charlie Brown shows up and grabs it. Yay! Good ol’ Charlie Brown FINALLY wins.

    I posted some of my favorite commercials from last year over at my blog.


  8. toni mcgee causey

    Dusty, same here! I thought that commercial was hilarious, but five minutes later, could not remember what the product was, even though I’d paid attention for this blog. And it sort of makes me wonder how on earth they didn’t realize was the implied message: drink our product and you’ll become this weird, socially questionable oddball… not exactly the desired implication. [And this is where I think most commercials either succeed or fail–getting that implied message right. The overt message, of course, being “remember to buy our product.”]

  9. toni mcgee causey

    RJ, I’m cracking up–we so think alike. I loved that Charlie Brown one, especially. On the Thriller one, I particularly like it when the lizard slurps up the cricket, without missing a beat. 😉

  10. Rae

    All time favorite ad – definitely the 1984 Apple ad, directed I think by Ridley Scott. Remember how innovative it was? Remember how innovative the Mac was? I also love anything to do with the Budweiser Clydesdales, especially when they play football.

    Here’s a link to the ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8

    And, a note from the football geek: the St. Louis Cardinals used to be the Chicago Cardinals, who took their jersey color from the old Chicago Maroons. So the color came before the mascot. Back in the day, there weren’t as many animal mascots. Teams tended to name themselves either after their locations or after their sponsors.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Rae… that Ridley, hmmm. Maybe he should do film. (tongue firmly in cheek) Cool call–I had forgotten about that one.

    And I did not know that about the Cardinals–interesting. I suppose red would be a hard color to pair with an animal mascot. Bama calls themselves the Crimson Tide and have earned the trepidation any team has facing them, so I suppose any mascot could work.

  12. Fran

    I’m so glad you did this one. I started to on my blog, but then I got sidetracked. It happens to me more than I care to say.

    But I love the Clydesdales always, and the e-trade baby had me hooting.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Fran. And sadly, I know too well what you mean about the sidetracked. I’ll look up from something twenty minutes after I was “just going to check” email, and realized I never finished the response, got distracted looking for an answer on the internet and have drilled more links than I could find my way back through, even with a trail of breadcrumbs.

  14. Lonnie Cruse

    I loved the Clydesdale ads. However, there was an ad for people looking to change jobs wherein they kept repeating the same stuff over and over for emphasis before telling you the link to go to. In the second one man kept calling another dummy, and there was a stinky guy to sit next to. NO idea who the ad was for but even if I remembered and even if I needed a new job, NO WAY I’d use that company. If their ads are that dumb . . .


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