1. Let’s (not) talk about sex. Sure, occasionally over-the-top sexual humor works. But 99% of brands don’t go there. So unless you can really pull it off, odds are your spot isn’t going to pass as real. If you want to go sexual, try being super subtle with it, or extremely clever. But a basic sex joke just isn’t going to move the needle for you.
2. Scratch that. Speaking of moving the needle, few things scream “spec” like a record scratch audio effect. If your joke hinges on a needle-scratch type of unexpected moment, perhaps consider whether it’s a smart enough concept to go on your reel.
3. Just (Don’t) Do It. Do you have access to a sports superstar willing to appear in your spec? Do you have a huge visual effects budget? Do you have a groundbreaking concept and incredible voiceover? No? Then you probably shouldn’t do a Nike spot. Just filming people working out and slapping a Nike logo on the end isn’t enough. Watch some actual Nike spots and you’ll see that they’re impossible to compete with. And by the way, this applies to Adidas spots as well, for the most part. Your best bet, in general, is to avoid a straightforward workout spot, unless you have an interesting concept to go with it. Just filming athletes doing their thing most likely won’t sell.
4. Avoid the Crash. After many years of the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl commercial competition, there have probably been more spec spots made for Doritos than for any other brand, by a magnitude of 10. Few things say, “This is a spec spot” like a commercial for Doritos.
5. Is that the latest? Companies run ads to show off their latest product, not one from three years ago. Make sure you have the newest version, especially when it comes to cars. “But I have a 2015 Camry, can’t I just use that?” Sorry, no. And it’s unavoidable – sheet metal spots get dated fast, especially if you say, “Introducing the 20XX model.” The one time you can use older models or products is in a heritage spot, but then you typically need to find a number of older versions to show the progression over time. Of course, if you’d like to sell a spot on the X4Y marketplace, it helps to make commercials without any product shots at all. This way, you’ll have a much bigger brand audience.
6. Hit the brakes on car ads. Unless you’re planning to become a car director exclusively, it’s a particularly tough specialty to break into, at least at first. There are only so many high-end car spots made each year, and because they’re expensive to make, agencies tend to hire from a small pool of proven directors to minimize risk. So it may be more challenging to find car work initially. It’s also difficult to make a great-looking car spot, in part because the vehicles are traditionally moving and require specialized gear to keep them well lit. If you’re a DP with a ton of car experience, it’s not as big a leap. But for a directing newcomer, you may find it a better use of resources to choose another category and focus on cars once you’re more established. And of course, if you shoot a car spot, you’ll only be able to sell it to one brand – the one in your spot.
7. Watch your tone. When planning a spot for a particular brand, make sure the tone of your spot matches their current marketing. If a brand never does comedy, don’t do comedy. If you have a great concept but it won’t “work” for a particular company, pick a different one. Again, if you can shoot a spot that works for multiple brands, you’ll have a much better chance of selling it to a number of clients, so be sure to leave out product shots or other intellectual property if possible.
8. This isn’t legal advice. Even though many commercials on TV display legal copy at the bottom of the screen, you don’t have to put it on your spec spot to make it look real. Most directors of “real” spots remove the legal copy for their reels anyway.
9. It’ll be the death of you. There are almost no circumstances in which portraying death is acceptable in a commercial, unless it’s about faking or narrowly avoiding an untimely demise. This is because it can upset the audience, who tend to be an emotional bunch. Remember the Nationwide Super Bowl spot with the kid who said he died from an accident? That didn’t go so well, and most likely, neither would your spot. Not saying there are never times it could work (sometimes funerals are okay) but it’s probably not worth taking a chance.
10. Abstain from (drinking) alcohol. Watch any beer or alcohol commercial and you’ll notice that the actors never actually drink the product. It’s technically not illegal to show alcohol being consumed, but the industry is strictly self-regulated on this matter. So don’t include any shots of someone sipping a hard seltzer or downing a beer. A bonus don’t: don’t ever portray anyone under drinking age in an alcohol spot, even if they’re in the background. It’s just not done.
11. Wait, I recognize that guy. No matter how great an actor was in one of your spots, resist using them in another one. Every role should be unique, so if you’re casting the same people, it could appear that you’re not comfortable with the casting (or talent-directing) process. Either that, or your friend the actor keeps guilt-tripping you. It’ll stand out to anyone watching your reel, so until you’re a famous filmmaker, enjoy the process of discovering and directing talent.
12. Ignore the dos and don’ts. Remember that every rule can be broken under the right circumstances, so view this list more as general guidance than immutable law. Want to film a corpse? Maybe it’ll work! Someone doing a keg stand? Why not! Just keep in mind that if you’re looking to sell your work, and yourself as a director, it helps to know the guardrails – and when you can break through them.