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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

TV Commercials and Fiction Writing

TV Commercials and Fiction Writing

Some years back I was strolling through a shopping mall in the Philadelphia suburbs where I lived at the time, when a person stopped me and asked if I’d take a survey. I agreed, and she took me into a large room with a TV. I had to watch various commercials and rate them. There were about five commercials, and after watching them, I couldn’t recall the names of any of the products they were trying to sell. Very bad commercials if I couldn’t remember the products within minutes of watching. I’ve never forgotten that experience. The same way companies want to make commercials that will sell their products, we want to write books readers will love and tell their friends about. I remember the books I loved and the ones I hated. The ones in the middle, not so much. You could say the books I hated got a reaction from me, if a bad one.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with TV commercials. I know I do. Whenever we watch a show we recorded, we skim through the commercials. I got to thinking about TV commercials and fiction writing and why they are similar. There are some ads I like enough to stop and watch. What is it that makes me love some ads and dislike others enough to have me scrambling for the mute button on the remote when they come on?

The things I enjoy or hate in a commercial are the same things I like or don’t like in books. Here are some of my best-loved ads and ones that make me reach for the mute button. To be on the safe side, I won’t give the product names for the ones I dislike. You may disagree with me, and that’s okay. That’s why there are so many different books out there—something for everyone.

I love Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady. Some of you may find her annoying, but I find her funny and refreshing. If she were a character in a romance novel, she’d be the heroine’s quirky best friend, the one who makes the heroine laugh and brings her down to earth when needed. If I’m flipping through channels and I come to Flo, I’ll stop and watch her. The Geico Insurance ads are favorites too. The gecko gets a little annoying at times, but I like him. However, I love the new ads they’ve been running where there’s a hilarious vignette that has nothing to do with reality, then two guitar players ask who’s happier than a person who saves money with Geico, and cites the characters in one of the crazy vignettes. My favorite is the two antelopes wearing night-vision goggles and taunting a lion. I laugh every time I see it. Another favorite is the one with Paul Revere calling in the British invasion on his cell phone so he can go back to playing charades with his friends. They’ve started running a new one about a vampire volunteering at a blood bank. Funny. I also love the insane Vikings in the Capital One commercials. I love how serious they are while doing outrageous things. And I like Jimmy Fallon (who doesn’t like Jimmy?) and that sweet little girl who stars in the Capital One ads with him. All of these commercials do a wonderful job on name recognition. Unlike those ads I watched in the survey years ago, I don’t forget the names of these products.

What makes the above commercials view-worthy and what can they teach us about writing stories readers will love? First, they’re funny, at least to me. We all love funny. I write feel-good stories, and these commercials make me feel good. They’ve got engaging characters I can relate to. They’re creative, out-of-the box thinking. Who could have come up with night-vision-goggle-wearing antelopes? Or Paul Revere using a cell phone? Or crazy Vikings bringing their Viking ways to the modern world? Each of these commercials takes something familiar and gives it a twist. There are only so many plots, but each author can put her own twist on a tried-and-true plot to make it fresh. That’s what these commercials do.

What about the commercials I dislike so intensely I can’t punch that mute button fast enough? The one that makes my stomach clench is for a product that’s supposed to help you stop smoking. Most. Annoying. Commercial. Ever. And they are long ads. I don’t smoke so the company doesn’t care that I hate their ads. I find the real-life people they use in these ads whiny and annoying. I don’t want to read books with whiny, annoying characters any more than I want to see them in commercials.

Other commercials I mute are ones for a popular weight-loss system. And it’s not WeightWatchers. I love WeightWatchers and like their commercials. As with the stop-smoking ads, these weight-loss ads show “real” people waxing enthusiastically about how much weight they’ve lost. To be fair, these commercials have gotten a little less nauseating lately. Maybe they had complaints about the one they did a few years ago that gets my prize as the most irritating commercial ever. Those featured a woman who giggled through the whole piece. Her husband loved her “new”  body—giggle, giggle. She loved her new body—giggle, giggle. No person, male or female, over the age of five should giggle. That commercial made me wonder about the woman’s husband. Didn’t he like her for herself before she lost weight? Not very heroic if he only likes her for her new, slim body. We writers don’t want to write heroes who aren’t heroic, and readers don’t want to read about them.

I always look forward to the commercials in the Super Bowl, but lately they’ve been forgettable. Tell me what you think. What are your favorite commercials and why? Your least favorite and why? Do you see a relation between them and books? This inquiring mind wants to know.

My latest release is Franco's Fortune (Redemption Book 2)

"When a female bodyguard is hired to protect a rich playboy, she finds saving his life is easier than protecting her heart."

When the past and present collide...
Somebody wants rich playboy Franco Callahan dead. When security expert Josephine Fortune arrives on his doorstep thanks to his sister Doriana, Franco finds it hard to refuse. He's had a secret attraction for the diminutive bodyguard since they met at Doriana's wedding five years before.

But attraction is all it is. Combat boot-clad Jo is not the kind of woman Franco usually loves and leaves. Which makes the ruse that Jo is his new live-in girlfriend just that until Jo gets a makeover. Suddenly seduction is on his mind and Franco has all the time in the world to pursue it—and Jo.

Martial artist Jo can take down men twice her size without blinking, but Franco's appeal outmaneuvers her emotional defenses. Jo's tough exterior hides a dark past, and Franco seems determined to learn her every secret. But he has secrets of his own.

The more Franco gets to know Jo, the more he realizes he needs her in his life, and not as his bodyguard. But as the threats to Franco escalate, Jo must use every one of her combat skills to protect him.

Can Jo keep both Franco and her heart safe, or will they pay the ultimate price for love?


Liz said...

as a marketing professional first and foremost I am fascinated by the effort the Geico insurance company puts into so MANY different funny and creative messages. they have an entire page on their company website devoted to them. Amazing. And I think it works. nice post. shared on my networks.

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Tina Donahue said...

Great post. I love Flo too. My all time fav is the one for ETrade where the baby boy is making trades while he's in his playpen, etc. The one where he and another kid are sitting in front of a computer and the other kid starts singing is priceless. :)

Molly Daniels said...

I LOVE that Geico ad with the antelopes and the night vision goggles!! I've not seen the vampire one yet.

My favorite Super Bowl commercials are the Budweiser ones with the Clydesdales. The one with the dog who grows up to ride on the wagon (and sticks his tongue out at his brother, lol!). The baby Clyde who goes on to pull the wagon, then recognizes his trainer. And LOVED the Folger's Coffee 'soap opera' in the mid-90's:)

And I can still sing the 1970's Burger King jingle. "Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way..."

Melissa Keir said...

I didn't realize it but you're right. I love the ones that are silly or fun rather than the serious ones. I'm not a fan of the ones featuring "real people" touting some service.

jean hart stewart said...

Guess it's unanimous...Everybody likes funny. love the geico lizard too. Somebody should get a big bonus for that concept.

Cara Marsi said...

Thanks, everyone. We all love funny. The ad company that does the Geico commercials deserve big bonuses. Molly I remember those Folger commercials. They had a contest once where you could write the next installment. The prize was a trip to Paris. I'd just starting writing and I entered the contest feeling hopeful. I didn't win. Sigh. Still hoping to get to Paris.

Aileen Fish said...

I actually stop what I'm doing when the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials come on, especially with the most recent one. And the Gallagher at a Farmer's Market Geico commercial makes me laugh out loud.


Hi, Cara! I love Flo too, especially the one in the rain where the language is so romantic-NOT! Or the Sonic guys-they are so funny. Call your mom. Mom says come home right now. The little girl explaining about being a werewolf, getting hot and having to shave and being grumpy. The dad teaching his kid how to throw a baseball.

Okay, I like funny ads.

oh Tina, ETRade baby is hilarious.

Paris said...

My favorite commercials are those crazy Vikings!The one where they lob a spear at a bear--through the television--is priceless.

My least favorite are the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercials. I actually stopped buying their product at one point because they encouraged being selfish. Their new commercials are not an improvement.

I do remember the silly/funny ones more than any of the others:)

Love the tag line for Franco's Fortune!

Cara Marsi said...

Thanks again, everyone. Molly and Aileen, I too love the Budweiser Clydesdales. And I love the eTrade baby. Vicki, I don't know the Sonic commercials. We don't have Sonic around here so that's why. Paris, another Vikings lover. I love Reese's Peanut Butter cups, but those commercials did nothing for me. Glad you like the tagline for Franco's Fortune.

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