X4Y Filmmakers

13 Spec Spot “Tells” (and How to Avoid Them)

Just as poker players have accidental “tells” that reveal their cards to other players, spec spots often have flaws that reveal them to be fake. Read on for some of the most common spec spot tells – and ways to keep them out of your commercial.


The best compliment you can get on a spec spot is, “Was that a real commercial?”

If you’ve ever shot a spec, you know how hard it can be to make it look “real.” After all, modern commercial productions boast all the components of a big film shoot, with a budget to match. Dozens of people contribute, from location scouts to casting directors to production designers to hair, makeup and wardrobe artists, assistant directors, grips and gaffers, editors, VFX artists, colorists and many others. Not to mention the truckloads of high-end gear, all there to ensure the commercial looks perfect.

And yet, with a fraction of the resources, your spec spot has to look just as good. Of course, what you lack in money, you can try to compensate for in time, energy and favors from everyone you know. But even then, it’s common to make mistakes that can quickly expose your spot as spec. Fortunately, there are specific steps you can take to avoid these spec spot tells and produce a broadcast-worthy, professional-grade spot that can propel your career – and even be sold to a real client!

Of course, what you lack in money, you can try to compensate for in time, energy and favors from everyone you know.

13 Spec Spot Tells (and How to Avoid Them)

The human eye is great at spotting things that are unusual, out of place, or simply don’t match what’s expected. In a spec spot, these imperfections stand out and can ruin your best efforts at making a real-looking commercial. So we put together this un-comprehensive list of spec spot tells to avoid when producing your spot. Follow our advice and you’ll be well on your way to receiving that ultimate compliment.

1. Something – anything – isn’t perfect. We’re kicking things off with a broad, but crucial, point: in commercial production, “good enough” is never good enough. Your spot has to be perfect. So make sure you nail every detail, from concept to wardrobe to music to the logo at the end. Keep an eye on everything throughout the process and make sure nothing ends up in your commercial that doesn’t belong. Because, as we’ve said, it takes just one tiny, little flaw to sink your spot.

2. What’s the big idea? This may seem obvious, but one of the biggest giveaways a spot is spec is when it’s built around an underwhelming concept, or no concept at all. Just because you show athletes working out doesn’t make it a Nike commercial. Meticulously shooting a bad joke doesn’t make it any funnier. And going too risque almost never flies. Yes, there are plenty of commercials on TV with bad concepts, but they’re probably not going on anyone’s reel.

The best spots – the ones on which careers are made – are clever, have a clear point of view, and make sense for the brand or category. Great comedy spots typically set up a funny concept then explore it with multiple beats of humor. Visual spots often feature a unique graphic concept that plays with interesting production design, camera moves, and casting, while emotional commercials tend to hit viewers with a powerful twist.

The good news is, as a director, you’re not expected to come up with the concept. The bad news is you still need one. So we suggest connecting with ad agency creatives to source professionally written, high-concept scripts they’d love to see produced. You can find more than 1,000 TV spot scripts written by agency creatives over at our subsidiary, SpecBank.com. You’ll be judged on the concepts on your reel, so don’t overlook this critical step.

One last note: if you’d like to sell your spec spot to an advertiser through the X4Y marketplace, it’s important to make your commercial “ready to brand.” This means choosing a concept or story that’s broad enough that it can apply to multiple brands, or even multiple categories. Then, when it’s done, it’ll be attractive to more brands, increasing your chances of selling your spec spot and turning it into a “real” spot.

3. Funky running time. This is the easiest one to avoid. Broadcast commercials almost always run :30 or :60 seconds, and occasionally :15 seconds. Pre-roll spots (ads that run before videos on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet) are typically :06, :10 or :15. If your spot is :42 or 1:02, that’s a tell. One watchout: if your :30 or :60 isn’t the exact right number of frames, it could show up as :29 or :59 on YouTube and Vimeo. And yep, that’s a tell.

Note that most commercials reserve the last three seconds for branding. To help make your spot sellable on X4Y, make sure there’s time and space for a logo and tagline that can be customized for different brands later. This can be over footage or a branded end card.

4. The wrong cast. It’s tempting to cast your roommate, spouse or coworker in a spot, but unless they’re perfect for the role, resist it. You have to be objective about your talent. Don’t stop looking until you find the right actors for the part.

Fortunately, there are inexpensive casting resources you can find online. The X4Y Creator community will also feature actors you can audition for your spots. Use video chats for auditions and you’ll get more responses than in-person casting. It’s also more efficient, and it comes with the added bonus that you won’t need to rent a casting facility. Shooting a comedy spot? Connect with your favorite improv or sketch comedy troupe for talent. (Just be sure to schedule extra time on your shoot day for all the spontaneous hilarity.)

Once you cast, try to rehearse with them before the shoot so they’re comfortable with their parts, saving you the time you need to get the performance you want.

5. Having a bad hair (or makeup or wardrobe) day. The characters in most TV commercials look like they just stepped out of a salon in brand-new clothes. If your talent is a little shaggy, or their clothes are wrinkled, it’ll be noticed. Also, make sure the outfits fit your talent by having them bring multiple outfits of their own. Need wardrobe ideas? Check Pinterest; many film enthusiasts have put together outfits and costumes as inspiration.

6. This must (not) be the place. Understandably, you’ll want to use whichever locations you have easiest access to, like a friend’s apartment or your parents’ backyard. Which could work! But like everything else, if the location isn’t just right for your concept, it could hurt you in the end.

Fortunately, you can find a “professional” location to meet your needs (and budget) through sites like Giggster and PeerSpace. The locations tend to provide insurance, too, saving you money and time.

If you end up using your own location, be ruthless with decluttering, sprucing and cleaning. Steam the curtains. Cover the carpet stains. Don’t be afraid to move furniture and replace artwork. Clean the dishes in the sink. And make sure you point the camera in the best-looking direction. On “real” commercials, there are teams of people to ensure everything looks perfect. Make sure you do, too.

7. I see IP – This one happens a lot: somewhere in a spec spot, we get a glimpse of intellectual property unrelated to the brand. A famous band poster in the background. Name-brand milk in the fridge. A swoosh on the talent’s shoes. A recognizable car. Even a branded billboard in the distance can give up the game. While non-ad people may not notice, anyone who shoots or buys commercials for a living will immediately spot this mistake. The reasons to avoid outside IP are fairly obvious: it’s distracting, it’s illegal to portray another brand without permission, and most of all, why would a brand spend good money to advertise another company?

So take a close look at your location, your wardrobe and every pixel of your monitor. Play a game of “spot the IP” and remove any intellectual property from the scene. It’s worth the effort.

If you’re interested in selling your next spot on X4Y, try shooting a version without any IP at all: No client product shots and no branding. This will let you rebrand the spot later. Or better yet, shoot it with multiple unbranded products. For example, if you’re shooting a snack chip spot, consider shooting the product shots with a variety of generic products, like potato chips, cookies, even a glass of cola. This will open up additional opportunities to sell your spot to brands.

8. Not-so-special effects. – Visual effects are hard to get right in post with even the biggest of budgets. So pulling off VFX on a spec spot can be very difficult, unless you have an effects background and can invest your own time to make the spot look great. Green screen replacement isn’t easy, especially if you’re working with camera moves. And building in full CGI can be time-consuming and expensive. That’s why we suggest you try to capture as much as you can in-camera without relying on post effects.

The X4Y Creator community will also offer access to post-production professionals, from storyboard artists to editors, effects artists, sound mixers and more.

9. Color me not. Perhaps the biggest difference between a real-looking commercial and an obvious spec is the color grade. Having your spot graded by a pro colorist can bring the image, and your vision, vibrantly to life. Grading can fix an under- or over-exposed picture and reveal visual information you didn’t know was there. It’s an art, but sadly, many new directors don’t even know it’s a step in the process. So it’s worth emphasizing: hire a professional colorist. You’ll also get more out of the process if you find and share visual reference with your colorist so they know the style you’re going for. You can start at ShotDeck, a repository of scenes from famous films.

10. You call that music? Some of the most famous commercials in history have been defined by their soundtracks. That’s why finding the perfect song to connect with viewers is a major part of the production process. In fact, there are companies whose sole purpose is locating (and licensing) unique tracks for commercials. So why do so many spec spots feature the same old, expected tracks?

Your choice of music is a reflection of your tastes, so don’t miss this opportunity to introduce viewers to a great track they haven’t heard before. Or if you use a famous song, find a version that’s been re-recorded by a contemporary artist. Your music can match the tone of the story, or play against type, like pairing action-driven imagery with a slow, soulful song.

Of course, if you’d like to sell your spot, you’ll need to get the music cleared by the publisher, which can be pricey. That’s why the most effective route is to purchase stock music, which has become more affordable, with more options, than ever. X4Y is currently partnering with music licensing companies to offer Creators inexpensive, high-quality music options you can use in nearly all media.

To make your spot truly unique, consider hiring a composer to create a custom soundtrack that enhances the beats of your story, like in this terrific spec spot by Daniel Kontur.

11. What’s that sound? If your audio isn’t captured well on set, there’s no great way to fix it later, and it’ll be expensive and time-consuming. So make sure you invest in capturing sound at a high quality on set, with a boom operator (for live sound or dialogue) and a sound engineer who can mix audio in real time to make sure you’re getting what you need. Also, carry a wireless playback device to make sure you’re not capturing unwanted sounds in the background. When it’s time to finish your spot, hire a sound mixer to get pro-quality mixing of audio, dialogue and soundtrack.

12. Not a good look for you. Sure, you could shoot on an iPhone. Should you? No. If you want a pro-looking spot, get a pro camera. While it’s expensive to rent the very latest equipment, you can get great deals on slightly older, high-end camera packages. One place to start: ShareGrid, where you can rent camera packages and gear for reasonable prices. Plus, if you rent on a Friday, you could get a camera for the entire weekend for the cost of one day.

13. Unfinished design. Ad agencies have art directors and designers to professionally lay out supers (text) and taglines on screen, in addition to handling other branding elements. Don’t treat text and branding as an afterthought; hire a designer to (inexpensively) ensure your spot’s design elements look as real as if they came from an agency.

Just because you show athletes working out doesn’t make it a Nike commercial. Meticulously shooting a bad joke doesn’t make it any funnier. And going too risque almost never flies.

Turn spec into real with X4Y.

While shooting a real-looking spot should always be your primary goal, selling a commercial to a brand can give your spot – and you – legitimacy you just won’t get from a spec spot. That’s why we encourage you to produce your spec spots as “ready-to-brand,” enabling them to be repurposed for a variety of companies looking for fully produced commercials. Sometimes it’s as simple as shooting scenes with and without your original product. Or recording a generic version of the voiceover. Or producing a variation with an unbranded end card so logos can be swapped in and out. Just be sure to avoid the spec spot “tells” above and you’ll be well on your way to producing spots high-quality enough to be bought and run by companies, turbocharging your career along the way.

Special thanks to Maciek Sokalski and David Liehn & Joe Laporte of directing team Frick & Frack for sharing their expertise!

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