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Why Do All Local TV Ads Look Like They Were Made in 1970?

• October 16, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: COURTESY OF YOUTUBE)

We might carry around high-definition video cameras in our pockets, but quality television is still expensive.

Sports Illustrated‘s Extra Mustard has an amusing clip featuring Philadelphia Flyers left winger Scott Hartnell as he makes an ad for a local car dealer. It’s pretty wonderful:

It’s notable for two reasons: The first is that it’s funny, a rarity for anything involving athletes. The second is that it doesn’t look like it’s shot with a camera used to film a hostage video that was then smeared with dirt, a rarity for local ads that usually air on television. You know what I’m talking about: the 30-second spot with some uncharismatic small business owner talking in monotone in front of some preposterous set-up.

The question isn’t so much why are the ads bad—that’s pretty obvious—but why do they look so terrible? In an age when phones have HD video cameras, why can’t the spots at least appear like they were shot sometime this decade? The answer, as it is with everything, comes down to cost. TV is not cheap. Or rather, good TV is not cheap.

(Note: Yahoo Answers, which is the local TV ad of the Internet, was not useless—surprisingly—when it came to researching this post.)

“I know film-school grads from Milwaukee living in their car because they refuse to work for Time Warner.”

Small businesses obviously have small advertising budgets. Unlike Coca Cola, they can’t spend $500,000 making a commercial. As a result, they turn to TV stations or cable providers for assistance, and the product suffers because young creatives don’t want to work for the man making commercials on the cheap. “I know film-school grads from Milwaukee living in their car because they refuse to work for Time Warner,” Aaron Biebert of Attention Era Media writes. That sounds like a stretch for hyperbolic effect, but the general point is well-taken. And with cheap product comes cheap cameras.

Another option is to turn to a service that specializes in local ads. But that’s all done on the cheap as well. They won’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on HD cameras if the market doesn’t demand it. Many small-business owners still believe television is the most effective method of advertising, therefore many small-business owners turn to low-budget ad creators, and the cycle continues.

(This is my favorite part of CheapTVSpots.com’s sales pitch: GUMBALL BILLING. Put in a quarter, get a gumball. Just like a gumball machine, we’re a “pay-in-advance” service. This pay as you go method eliminates billing hassles, and helps you keep your costs down. Simpler billing is cheaper billing… and WE PASS THE SAVINGS ON TO YOU.”)

The increasingly lower cost of HD will help—at least one site claims it can produce HD commercials for $2,500—but the big boys of marketing will always be on the forefront of the latest upgrades. As a result, the lower budget ads will continue to look, well, low budget.

Perhaps the best way out isn’t with high-quality cameras but with high-quality content. Take, for example, the wonderful Old Milwaukee ad campaign in 2011. The spots looked like they were shot in the mid-1980s but no one complained because they featured Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell. Sure, not every local business is going to get a movie star approaching them because he’s a “big fan of the brand,” but injecting a little creativity into an otherwise lifeless 30-second clip wouldn’t be that hard, and it might just dramatically increase the spot’s effectiveness.

Then again, ponying up for a real camera wouldn’t hurt, either.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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