Last Sunday a lot of people watched television to see the commercials.
Normally, people dump on commercials. They’re inane, intrusive and more often than not little more than an invitation to surf around the dial to see what else is on.
Except for Super Bowl Sunday, when advertisers pay millions for 30 seconds of airtime and corporate creatives pull out all the stops to set their brands apart, most people despise commercials.
I share that sentiment. Although when I was starting out as an actor, commercials kept me alive. They not only paid the phone bill and the rent, they allowed me to keep working in the theatre where a two or three month run seldom earned you more than a single one of those commercial messages.
But it was far from easy money. You spent your days running from audition to audition, reading in front of a bleacher full of ad execs and company reps who had no concept of such thespian needs as character or motivation.
Sometimes you got jobs because you matched the guy in the storyboard sketch. Or lost them because you had the same color hair as their daughter’s idiot boyfriend.
You quickly realized you weren’t dealing with a deep understanding of how comedy or drama was made. They were invested in the mantra of their product and needed you to deliver their message perfectly even if you had no idea what exactly (besides soap) they thought they were selling.
Shoot days were worse. While films seldom did more than handful of takes, the simplest of commercial shots often went into double and triple digits. The performance of the “talent” now utterly secondary to how the sweat dripped down your beer glass or the sun caught a car’s hood ornament.
Most of the actors I knew in that world developed a healthy love/hate relationship with the medium. You were thrilled for your bank balance when you got a spot –- and relieved in equal measure for your sanity when you didn’t.
What finally made me walk away was a trend demanding you arrive at an audition virtually in costume. The agent’s instructions were always precise. Dress like a Disco dude. Look like a lumberjack. Be that dad with three kids in private school.
It was just further proof that the people making the ad had little if any imagination.
One day with a full schedule of auditions, and without time to change between them, I walked into an audition dressed like a working class hero when they expected a trendy bartender.
“Hold it!” said the director, “Didn’t your agent tell you to look like a bartender?”
“Uh-huh…” I responded, not wanting the agency to take the hit.
“Didn’t he tell you to wear a white shirt, bow tie and dark slacks?”
It felt like the whole room wanted an explanation. I had grown so tired of this shit....
“Yeah, he did –- but he only goes to Gay bars…”
There was dead silence. I knew I’d gone too far. Then worried looks criss-crossed the room.
I got the part.
And they insisted I wear exactly what I was wearing. It was my last commercial.
The scars from those years have long ago healed and I have a special place in my heart for commercials that feature imagination, a real desire to be different and maybe most importantly –- wrap their message in something more important than just selling a product.
Because I know how nigh to impossible it is for those things to survive the process.
For all of the special and innovative stuff that interrupted last Sunday’s football game, what follows might be one of the best commercials I’ve seen in years.
It’s from South Africa and what’s being sold is mentioned only once and barely in passing. Yet I guarantee you will never forget the brand nor think of it in anything but a positive light.
And that’s well worth holding off the remote for a minute and paying attention to the message.
Enjoy Your Sunday.