Getting Television Messaging Right

Ask people what they think about advertising, and chances are, if they’re not in the industry they’d probably answer in the negative. Which, okay, can be well-deserved. Television messaging can be annoying. There’s a reason why adblockers are catching on, why some people prefer to record free-to-air TV so they can fast-forward through ads, why people pay for Spotify Premium to listen to music ad-free. Ads can be incredibly annoying. Worse, Australian TV ads can be extremely strident: there’s nothing that makes me reach more quickly for a TV remote than someone yelling at me through the screen that their carpets are super cheap. Or that annoying Coles jingle about prices being down. Cthulhu curse whoever wrote that jingle — it’s probably stuck in my brain forevermore. Which might be what they were looking for.

The Good

Annoying as ads are to people in general, ask anyone what their favourite ad is and they can probably name something offhand — probably faster than they can name their favourite movie, song, or book — and can probably tell you exactly why it’s their fave as well. That’s because ads are really very short films that can be cut down into 15, 30, or 60 second versions, and as with any short film, they can be extremely effective if they convey the right story, with the right script, in the right way. Think of a tv ad not as a piece of moving newspaper print, but as a very small film that must convey a certain message to your preferred audience, in a way that will stick in their mind, and that hopefully won’t put them off your brand.

It doesn’t have to follow basic story structures, and given the time constraints, it likely won’t. With that in mind, conceptual ads with no traditional storylines, no traditionally spoken scripts, but with a great song and imagery will also work. This is my all-time favourite ad, Discovery Channel’s “I Love the Whole World”:

As a piece of advertising, it works. The song is catchy, the imagery is amazing. Running at a minute long, the ad doesn’t cut down that well (though it’s possible), and only a channel like Discovery could make an ad like this without running into massive costs. That being said, it’s a perfect message — in this case, a great song — that runs through the whole ad, tying every popular Discovery show at the time together. It’s extremely shareable, people will watch it through to the end, and possibly rewatch it again on their own.

One great piece of advertising last year was Tourism Australia’s Superbowl ad, which ran originally as a “film trailer” for a new Crocodile Dundee movie:

Whoever had this genius idea in the pitch should be given all the awards. The cat was quickly out of the bag after wild speculation on the internet (also, isn’t Russell Crowe a New Zealander?). The actual, self-aware commercial:

The cost of using Australia’s most popular stars aside, the ad worked. It was a hilarious piece of guerilla marketing that showed off what it was meant to show off — the Australian landscape — and promoted it as a holiday destination. Even the “real” ad worked, if only because of Chris Hemsworth’s gift for comedic timing. Even the cringey salesy thing Chris says about how there’s cheap flights to Australia. Comedy tends to stick in the brain, which is why this low (not counting Ricky Gervais’ fee) budget ad for Optus/Netflix works so well:

Optus could’ve shelled out for a flashy ad using film clips, but this — this was so much better. It’s funny. People shared it, often calling it the greatest commercial they’d ever seen. Follow-ons were quickly filmed once Optus saw how well it worked. I do hope Ricky did get paid a “shedload” of money — him and whoever thought of this ad. It’s a prime example of how great “television messaging” often just needs to be a fantastic concept brought across to the audience with great execution. It does not need to be salesy (and if it does, get Chris Hemsworth to do it.)

Or a dog, with this great “Unskippable” GEICO ad that shows you don’t need star power to make an incredible ad:

Made specifically for YouTube pre-roll, the whole point of the GEICO ad was to stop people from skipping past it: with the whole message of the ad in the first 15 seconds and a payoff being an entire minute of the huge dog eating spaghetti. It’s a hilarious ad that quickly went viral, with some people saying they’d intentionally watched it over ten times (see the comments in that video). Again, the concept was the key to people liking and watching the ad to the end, a concept that was translated across a series of different ads.

There was also this hilarious “Your Man” Canadian breast cancer exam awareness ad, which quickly went viral:

Designed by agency john st., the ad, which features a variety of attractive topless men in the hopes of raising more awareness about self-conducted breast examinations, quickly went viral. The Your Man health app was downloaded over 38,000 times. Again, this app had the right message, with the right context, with the right production for the right audience.

For a simple message that just works, there’s also this incredible American gun-control ad:

The ad asks its salient question at the end: “Guns have changed, why shouldn’t your gun laws?” The delivery was fantastic, the concept great, the message simple and powerful. It’s memorable. It works. That’s television messaging at its simplest and finest.

The Bad, and the Ugly

Sometimes an ad annoys me so much that I make a mental note to never buy from it again. There have been a few over the years. Remember that terrible “beach-ready” controversial weight-loss ad by Protein World? Or the racist Dolce & Gabbana campaign? Brands often apologise afterwards, but the damage would’ve been done — particularly for D&G, which lost a huge part of its target market. Bad messaging no longer works. It’s no longer true in this day and age that any attention is good attention. At worst, it can permanently damage your brand.

Terrible messaging aside, there have been ads which weren’t controversial but which still annoyed me enough to add it to my mental blacklist. Like this one, by Clemenger for Perfect Italiano:

My Gods, it’s so annoying. I think this ad was what got me into the habit of muting ads on Australian broadcast tv. The brand bought a lot of ad space Channel Ten in between Masterchef Australia. I used to buy Perfect Italiano cheese before the ad, but now I stick to its competitors wherever possible. There was nothing particularly wrong with the messaging, but the sheer smarminess of the ad rubbed me the wrong way. There was just something weirdly offputting and condescending to me about the so-called “perfect man” in the ad. In comparison, Perfect Italiano’s Gordon Ramsay ad was hilarious:

A more empowering ad that focused on the number of chores that are often designated “women’s work” around the house, it also had a simpler message: perfect Italian meals, no celebrity chef required. It’s too late, though. The one bad ad from 2010 has already moved me to Mil Lel.

Television Messaging — Best Practices

Making TV ads is an expensive endeavour: if only because of the media buy. If you don’t have good television messaging, then you might have just wasted your money. Any message is going to have to have a great concept, fit into your brand’s overarching strategy, and preferably conform to meeting your pre-designated key performance indicators (KPIs). Some things to keep in mind:

  • Be respectful. Nowadays bad controversy that leans into racism/sexism/ablelism/etc will not help your brand.
  • Have a strategy. That includes having clear KPIs. What are you trying to get out of the ad?
  • Be realistic. Unless you’re very lucky, an ad will not push your brand to the forefront of your market overnight.
  • Spread your media buy. Don’t just blow it all on TV — there’s also YouTube pre-rolls, Instagram ads and more, all of which might be relevant to your target audience and product.
  • Be inclusive. It’s not the 90s anymore.
  • Have a good concept. A mere tagline won’t work. Great ads are memorable the way great short films are memorable: they’re punchy, resonate in some way with people, and are well-made.

Any questions? Get in touch.

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