The Language of Advertising.

I love advertising. There. I said it. I’d rather watch a great ad than just about anything. A 30-second national ad has roughly the same budget, acting quality, directing quality, and production quality of a 30-minute sitcom. A well-crafted 30-second spot tells a short story, with a plot, characters, story arc, and everything else you expect in good communication. Oh, and it sells something. Usually. (Some advertisers forget to sell a product, and some forget to tell a compelling story, but I’m speaking here of GOOD commercials.

All good commercials have one thing in common – economy. You won’t see one frame of action, one word of dialog, or one effect that didn’t NEED to be there, or wasn’t laboriously fretted over to the nth degree. (Would that producers and directors would give the same attention to detail to TV shows and movies.)

Part of that economy comes down to a visual and audible shorthand…how to make a point without using up too many frames of film (or video). In comedy terms, it’s called setting up the gag. You don’t want to take too much time to set up the gag, or the payoff isn’t worth it. Have you ever heard someone tell a joke, but put way too much detail in the setup, or take too long to tell it? By the time they get to the punchline, you’re no longer interested.

TV commercials are a lot like that. For instance, why show a squad car driving up and cops jumping out, guns drawn, when all you have to really show is a red flashing light on the face of a perp, with some siren sound effects in the background? When you want to give the impression that something is old, haul out your bag of tricks. Tint the footage with a sepia tone filter, throw in a little film grain, some scratches, maybe a little frame jitter, and, voilla! you have a vintage movie.

I do a lot of things like this, because it helps tell the story, and gives the audience something to hang on to – something to relate to, and something they can appreciate. Learning builds upon previously learned experience. If I can get viewer buy-in by simply telling them “this product has something familiar about it” and I can get that through some visual or aural shorthand, I can spend the rest of my time telling them about what the product does for them.

But it’s not enough to buy a reel of film effects, or explosions, or whatever visual cues you want to use. You have to understand what these things mean culturally, and generationally. For instance, a phonograph record’s clicks, pops and skips mean “vintage” to anybody over 40. Under 40? They see a phonograph strictly as something used by rap “artists.” [An aside: when I talked too much as a kid (a frequent occurance), my Dad used to tell me I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.’ Years later, when I became a dad, I told my kid the same thing. He looked at me and said, “what’s a phonograph needle?”]

Seen a dial telephone lately? A floppy disk? How about a typewriter. All these items have distinctive shapes, looks, and in most cases, sounds. Use them at your risk, as for much of your audience, you’ll either get blank looks, or be relegating your spot to the “vintage” category. (Of course, there’s also irony, but that’s a subject for another blog.) tIn order to use a visual or audible shorthand, you’ve got to know what that shorthand translates to for your audience. Preferably ALL your audience. Otherwise, you’re liable to be speaking in a language they no longer understand.

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