By Trent Rentsch
Like anyone who cares about their work, I take a certain pride in my scripts and finished production. After throwing enough of both against the wall over the years, some basic rules and rhythm have stuck and my own “voice” comes through in what I do, intentionally or not. Still, I understand that my Creative flow can use adjustment depending on the client and/or situation. Revisions are all part of the game; this is no place for the bullheaded and thin-skinned of the world. But not long ago, revisions got so stupid for one client that I actually blurted the phrase I never thought would fall out of my mouth, “Dude, it’s JUST a spot!”
It started innocently enough, with the Rep asking for additions to an already packed script. Fine, used to that (especially with this Rep). What would you like to lose so we can add this information? There was much hesitation, but he finally gave me 3 or 4 words that could go away, and I did what I could to consolidate what was left. Soon he was back, complaining that “the urgency was gone.” Well, he might be right; one of the words he told me I could lose was “hurry.” I re-write again, find a place to “hurry,” and send it back. With barely enough time to print the script, much less read it, he was knocking on my door again. “I want to change the order of the sentences… add more urgency.” Ahh, yeah. We flipped a couple of sentences, neither of which had anything to do with the “urgent” message in the script, I printed him a copy and he disappeared again… but not for long. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, not even knocking this time. “We really need to say ‘hurry in now,’ not just ‘hurry in.’ Are you sure there isn’t time to add that?” I assured him that the script was already pushing it, but if we could lose one mention of the phone number…
This went on for (I’m not exaggerating) 18 revisions… and only 1 of them came from the client. When he came in to argue whether I should be using “a” rather than “an,” I finally snapped, and dumb fell out. He looked at me as though I had just pooped on his desk, and really, I had. Because when I called it “just a spot,” I devalued everything we did as a production company.
Shame on me for letting my frustration get the better of me. What was supposed to come out when I opened my mouth was, “You’re sweating the wrong stuff.” That’s not to say that if my grammar was wrong that he shouldn’t have corrected me (I had it right, by the way). The problem was that in his quest to re-arrange and deconstruct my original script over and over, he was destroying the intent and flow I had already built into the words, and it was becoming an ineffective mess.
There’s a lot of unnecessary “tweaking” going on in the production world, and I’m not picking on Reps. Clients do it… and producers do it. You can hear it when a commercial is over-worked. It’s wordy, the background music is too low (or, once in awhile, too loud), the music tails off into nothing, the sound effects stick out rather than enhance the production, the phone number appears more than twice (often, read slowly, which ruins the pace of the spot), the web address begins, “WWW…,” on and on.
There are many Creative style directions a commercial can take, but regardless of the spin on the ball, the same basic rules apply to all copy and production if it’s going to be effective. Here are several of those rules:
For copy, there needs to be one compelling main point that the words need to convey; it’s tough enough making one main point without other points cluttering the copy. For instance, “XYZ Motors has new trucks as low as 13-9-95” is a compelling main point for a truck buyer. Adding, “XYZ Motors also has mowers, a friendly service department, a 10 dollar gift card to Dennys for taking a test drive, and day old donuts in the waiting room” is not only muddying the waters, but wasting important space that could be used pounding the main point (cheap new trucks) home. Notice that I said the main point must be compelling. If the “main point” was a meal at Dennys for a taking a test drive, will the client get buyers… or hungry leeches?
Another copy basic no-no, repeating the phone number. People will argue this with me, and I admit that there are businesses that are notable exceptions, I feel adding the phone number period is another waste of space. Listeners won’t retain the number because they don’t have to, especially now when 411 on their cell will not only look up the number, but dial it for them. If the client really wants bodies through the door, that space can be used for clear directions to their business. If they must, “we’re in the phone book” is better than droning a useless number.
I could get into other unnecessary copy points (I mean, unless your web browser was designed to work with Windows 95, odds are you don’t HAVE to type “www”), but I want to mention a few points that are over-worried about in production. I mentioned music being too low earlier; that is usually a client hearing the commercial over a phone and complaining that the music is too loud, and the Rep and Producer reacting to it. Get your mix right and stick to it, even if it means a white lie that you “fixed it” before it hit the air (because isn’t that where it’s really supposed to sound right?). And speaking of music, I’ll hear a great read on a spot with this lingering music tail at the end. Obviously the voice talent got their voice “perfect” and ignored the fact that the music tail made the finished product sound sloppy. I find it ruins both that commercial and whatever plays after it. Basically, any element of the commercial that detracts from the message, that diverts the listener’s attention, means that the Producer was worried too much about some other element… or worse, doesn’t care at all.
Sadly, my statement that it’s “just a spot” is exactly how much of the listening public feels. It is our job to change that perception, to keep them listening to our client’s message, and to make that message clear and compelling, without a lot of garbage. It may sound odd to take pride in drawing people to the grocery store for 79 cent 4-paks of toilet paper, but hey, it’s what we do.