Making of a TV Commercial. Click image to enlarge
Article by Steven Bochenek, photos by Steven Bochenek and courtesy TBWA and Nissan Canada
The best advertising makes a single point very well. But what do you do when selling something as complicated as a car, which has so many aspects, uses and benefits? You pick the one your customer is most interested in. Take the 2014 Nissan Sentra. It has improved steering and suspension dynamics over the 2013 model — and a sliding headrest — but what interests its buyers most these days is the fuel economy. So that’s the story the advertiser sets about telling those buyers.
Last month Nissan Canada invited Autos.ca to an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of a TV commercial for the 2014 Sentra with Xtronic CVT, which it launched on July 21. Shot on location about 70 km outside of Toronto, the production was impressively big, executed gradually over three full nights. On the night I was there, I counted over fifty cars parked out back for the many crew, ad agency staff and their clients, four cranes for assorted lights and cameras and twenty trucks containing film gear.
I arrived at the set, a lonely country gas station and diner, just as the sun was going down and began taking photographs. In front of the cameras and director’s chair, there’s a darkened compact car beside darkened gas pumps, which have been given robot-like faces. A man, brightly lit, stands bored in the sort of harness you see teenage boys being hurtled eighty feet into the air in at amusement parks.
And that’s about it, save for the dozens of bodies standing around. Television production is actually terrifically dull.
Months of planning are behind nearly every commercial you’ve ever seen. Scores of hours of setup can go into a single short shot. These people make construction workers look industrious. Everyone just seems to be standing around. That is until someone like me shows up and starts taking pictures.
“Hi. What are you doing?” A member of the crew has been dispatched by the director or his assistant. When I explain that I was invited to do this story, she ushers me into the diner where I could watch any shots on their monitor, out of the way, citing issues of danger and insurance. Nothing new here. Clients and agency people are often sequestered from the action. If someone was walking around your office, taking pictures and acting cool, you’d probably find it distracting too. Nonetheless it’s hard not to feel like a toddler being stored in a crèche. “Please enjoy a sandwich,” she says, point at the craft table, the production team’s ultimate weapon against wanderers with access to the set. On the other hand, it’s a chance to talk to the creative team who came up with the ad. They’re here eating sandwiches too.
Interior: Diner. Click image to enlarge
“Wait a second. Aren’t you Nick?” Inside the diner, a few people sat in front of a pair of monitors fuzzily displaying the gas pump outside. Despite this being their second night on set, they don’t look tired. One of them is a former student of mine. I teach the craft of advertising copywriting to postgraduates at Humber College and, at this moment, I’m secretly relieved that I’d remembered his name because Nick immediately smiles back and says mine. After quickly catching up, we discuss the ad.
Driver pulling up to the pumps. Click image to enlarge
The purpose of the spot is to show off the Sentra’s fuel economy, which is better than its competitors, and of course when targeting competitors, you’re going to look at the bestselling car in your segment. The specific comparison the spot makes: 2014 Sentra with CVT against an anonymous compact car (okay, we all can clearly see that it’s a Civic – you could just easily compare it to the Corolla or Impreza, all of which have turned to CVTs as a means to improve efficiency). But what’s it about?
“We show the competitor driver coming to the pumps,” Nick Doerr, advertising copywriter from the agency TBWA. He looks outside and tilts his head. “It’s night. It’s creepy. The guy gets attacked by these fuel pumps. They trip him, wrap him up and dangle him upside down, so change falls out of his pockets. The Sentra, our hero, is driving along the road and he sees the competitor driver in peril. He smashes the gas pumps and saves the day. The moral is: you don’t have to fill up as often when you have a Sentra.”
It’s a demonstration, an exaggeration to make a point. What Nick calls, “the physical embodiment of having to pay more for gas – or having to fill up more often, which you have to do with a car whose fuel economy isn’t as good as the Sentra. It’s dead simple which is the best kind of premise.” It’s a popular saw in advertising: if you can’t summarize your idea of the back of a napkin, it’s not simple enough.