For the past five years, I have been fortunate enough to work steadily as a commercial director. I have worked with all manner of clients from fortune 500 companies to small start-ups. It’s as challenging as it is fun. Now when I’m able to teach an on-camera class with acting students, I like to draw a comparison between life here on Earth and this place I have come to know as “Commercial Land.” Honoring the product is an incredibly important facet of Commercial Land.
Life in Commercial Land often resembles life on Earth quite closely, but the trap that many new actors fail to recognize is that Commercial Land is not governed by the same natural laws. It’s super obvious in commercials where actors are, say, having a conversation with a talking animal, but most of the time the differences between Commercial Land and the real world are more subtle and concern the broad, underlying principles of commercial advertising.
As my classroom analogy goes, on Earth everyone must obey the law of gravity. Likewise, Newton’s laws of motion. These are some of the non-negotiable rules of nature that shape our world and our existence in it. We have no choice but to abide by them. Commercial Land also has rules and laws that must be obeyed or it is thrown into absolute chaos. Oblivion, even.
The equivalent to the law of gravity in Commercial Land is this:
advertising equals happiness. This is the supreme equation that governs the realm, and, by extension, all of your choices as a commercial actor. (Sidebar: season one of Mad Men also talks about this idea quite a bit.) It’s an equation meant to form an allegiance. If I use this
detergent I will have a beautiful family and a nice house. If I eat this particular burger I will have the best time with my friends. If I buy this fancy car I will go driving on the highway in the big city at night with a sexy boyfriend and we will be the coolest. This is the fundamental spell that effective advertising conjures: if only I had this good or service I would then be happy. Working hand in hand with advertising=happiness is this tenet: the product must be honored.
Your choices as an actor must always honor the product. Commercial Land ceases to function when actors are not honoring the product. While I think that this idea is pretty straight forward—essentially don’t do or say things that reflect badly on the product you have been hired to help sell—I am usually proven wrong by actors with great frequency.
So, here are three extreme negative examples to highlight the principle:
-You are not honoring the product if you joke about the product’s competitor(s) in your audition or on set. In a callback recently an actor whom the copywriter and I both really liked in the initial audition made a joke about using the competitor’s products and I watched as the account rep who was also in the callback room crossed the actor’s name off on her schedule. When I mentioned this actor later as a possibility for the role I was met with an unequivocal “no.” In her eyes, the jokes were a bridge too far and she was concerned he might say those same things in front of the client on set. Understandable. I decided not to fight that battle and suggested another actor.
-You are not honoring the product if you openly disparage it. (Duh.) I had an actor on set recently who was not thinking and said while handling the hero product “Man, the handle on this thing is kind of crappy.” All the clients heard including the guy who designed the “crappy” handle. The actor was almost fired on the spot.
-You are not honouring the product if you can’t pronounce its name correctly. This kind of fumble understandably happens a lot with pharmaceutical commercials and trade industrials. Whenever possible, get clarification on the pronunciations before you enter the audition room. Obviously, this is an extremely important element for the clients and all involved.
With all that in mind, a trip to Commercial Land can be an absolute blast if you mind the law of the land. Working in commercials can give you the financial solvency to do those no pay plays and film projects that feed your soul. Because one thing I forgot to mention about Commercial Land: the sky is green there. ;)
–Matt Miller is a Chicago based director and producer. As a commercial director, Matt’s recent credits include work for Lowe’s, Eggo, America’s Best Eyeglasses, Black Flag, AT&T, Hyundai, Crest, and The Hartford.