How to write a 30-second TV commercial script

April 8, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: How-to Guides 

television commercialEvery copywriter longs for the opportunity to write a TV commercial. But the type of commercial you’ll end up writing isn’t what you think it will be.

Unless you work at an ad agency or video production house, you’re not going to come anywhere close to writing a script for the next NIKE commercial.

You might get the opportunity to write a direct response or DRTV commercial. But you’re more likely to write spots for shoe stores, neighborhood banks, used car dealers, furniture outlets, fruit markets, and other local businesses.

Not too impressive, I know, but there’s a ton of small businesses who need these kind of TV spots. And someone has to write the scripts. Right?

It might as well be you.

Understanding Local TV Advertising

TV commercials are not like other media, such as print or websites.

A reader browsing a website has plenty of time to absorb information and can even reread copy that is interesting or informative.

However, TV commercials happen in real time. Most local spots run 30 seconds. That’s all the time you have to tell the viewer about whatever you’re selling. When it’s over, it’s over.

Of course, an advertiser will run commercials more than once, so viewers may be able to see your spot several times. However, the number of times it runs is out of your control. So you shouldn’t rely on repetition to get your message across. It should be clear and complete even if seen just once.

It’s also important to remember that the small businesses who run local TV ads don’t have a big budget. The owners usually operate brick-and-mortar stores and want to attract local customers. Your commercial can’t waste time on clever visuals or dialog. It must introduce the business quickly and give viewers a reason to go to the store.

The 30-Second TV Commercial Formula

There are many ways to structure a TV commercial, but for our purposes, let’s stick to the standard “voice over” spot. This means that an announcer reads about 30 seconds of copy accompanied by synchronized video. (Technically, a 30-second commercial is 28.5 seconds. You lose about one and a half seconds to fade the video up at the beginning and down at the end.)

So you will write a script consisting of two elements: the audio (announcer’s voice over) and the video.

TV script template

Click to download a pdf of this template.

Most writers use a specially formatted TV script template for this, a page with the Audio on one side and the Video on the other. You can see the template I use here.

If there is anything like a formula for writing a local 30-second TV script, it’s this:

1. Say it.

2. Explain it.

3. Repeat it.

SAY IT.

With only 30 seconds to work with, you don’t have much time to build a mood or be clever. You must get to the point with the first sentence. Come right out and say what the spot is going to be about.

“Save 50 percent on all living room furniture at Finley’s Furniture!”

“Sun Bank offers you the lowest rate home equity loans in town.”

“Buy your dream car at Nolte Chevrolet for just one dollar down!”

The lead sentence in a commercial is like the headline in a print ad. It must get the viewer’s attention, select the appropriate audience for the message, and make the viewer want to know more.

Along with the announcer speaking this lead sentence, you will need to show a visual to go along with it. If the commercial is about saving 50 percent at Finley’s Furniture, you could show an attractive set of furniture with the words “Save 50%” on the screen.

Words on a TV screen are generally called “chyron” or “CG” for character generator. So when you write the announcer’s first sentence in the audio column, you will also write instructions for the video and CG in the Video column.

EXPLAIN IT.

After you SAY IT, you need to EXPLAIN IT. If your lead sentence is successful, you now have the attention of the viewer and must spend a few seconds sharing additional details.

If your lead sentence is “Save 50 percent on all living room furniture at Finley’s Furniture,” you could show various brand name pieces of furniture with audio that names each one.

Or to keep it simple, the audio may be nothing more than “Save 50% off traditional furniture. Save 50% off modern furniture. Save 50% off sectionals, tables, and lamps.” And so on.

REPEAT IT.

Finally, after you SAY IT and EXPLAIN IT, you should REPEAT IT. This sounds pretty simple, but a lot of writers forget this.

Remember that your audience is not necessarily a captive one. Attention spans are very, very short.

With remote controls and hundreds of channels to choose from, you can also expect many viewers to come into your spot late. They may be interested in what you’re talking about, but if you don’t repeat your “headline,” you run the risk of loosing a sale.

Often you just need to repeat the idea in the lead sentence and, since you’re probably urging people to show up at a store at a particular time, give the location and time. Like this: “Save 50 percent on every piece of living room furniture in the store. This weekend only at Finley’s Furniture. 123 Main Street in downtown Groveport.”

On the screen, you could show “Save 50%” plus the date and address, along with a picture of the outside of the store.

Quick Tip For Writing Local TV Commercials

Okay, I know a commercial like this isn’t very sophisticated. It doesn’t take a genius to write one.

That’s why the hardest part is resisting the urge to be creative. You have a job to do, usually to drive buyers to a store location. And more often than not, the more creative you try to be, the more likely your commercial will fail.

What you have to learn is how to build the words, images, and CG so they deliver a clear, complete message in just 30 seconds. So here’s my tip: Set up your DVR or video recorder to capture a few dozen local TV ads. Then watch them carefully and transcribe the audio and video images.

After doing this a few times, you’ll start to get a sense for how local TV commercials are put together. Eventually you’ll be able to write a script on your own. It may not be an award winner, but it will probably be good enough to get the job done.

Related posts:

  1. How to write a direct response TV commercial that sells

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Smart Comments

42 Comments on How to write a 30-second TV commercial script

  1. Joshua Black on Apr 8th, 2010 11:23 am
  2. I can see how this is also a really concise method to get your message across in other mediums too, such as classified ads, radio, and this would even work well for YouTube informercials.

    Thanks for the insight.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black’s last blog … Bag of Dog Poop Ignites a Small Business Fireā€¦ =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on Apr 8th, 2010 12:03 pm
  4. Joshua,
    Well it would work for radio. Classified line ads are so short you basically have to keep them to a headline. They’re like tweeting. For a 30-second TV script you have about 70 – 80 words. That’s short.

  5. akhtar shirzai on Aug 23rd, 2010 4:45 am
  6. actually, it is very intersting for me, because i work in NATO in tv section and have to write tv spot for the support of Afghanistan governmet, but we havent any training now and i am new for that work .
    so, i hope to support me in this case for how to write spots for 2 minutes and what is important for best script to regard it and learn it.

  7. Ian Moore on Nov 12th, 2010 5:00 am
  8. I am a graphic designer by trade, based in the UK, which has involved a certain amount of copywriting and copyediting for both print and web over a 26 year career. I have recently been asked to write a 30 second tv ad though and I find the opportunity to tempting to turn down. I will be studying your tips pages while I consider my approach but I have no idea what to offer as a fee nor what the going rate is for such a commercial. Can you offer any guidance?

  9. Dean Rieck on Nov 12th, 2010 9:40 am
  10. Ian,
    There really is no “going rate” in copywriting. Fees are all over the lot. But you can see the following for a sense of what full-time professional copywriters might charge. http://www.directcreative.com/copywriter-salaries-and-fees.html

    Keep in mind that this may be higher or lower than what YOU can get. It’s all about your experience and skill and the expectations of your client.

  11. Fred Hathorn on Nov 25th, 2010 11:13 am
  12. Can anyone tell me some of the ways to market or the best way of approaching new prospective clients to offer my services. Writing commercials is going to be my new career, so I look forward to hearing from you.

    [...] How to write a 30-second TV commercial script [...]

  13. Daniel K. Brantley on Mar 30th, 2011 4:48 pm
  14. Not sure where direct creative dot com got it’s numbers, but they must have come from a mighty big city. The rest of us would charge half or so for just about everything listed. It’s not because we’re cheap or don’t provide good work. Rather, it’s that we live in places that don’t require a $100,000 income to get by.

  15. Dean Rieck on Mar 30th, 2011 4:55 pm
  16. Daniel: So your fees are based on where you live? That’s not a good business strategy. Fees should be based on your skill, experience, and the value you bring to a client.

  17. Daniel on Mar 30th, 2011 4:59 pm
  18. Dean,

    Now that I think about it, I agree. However, my cost of living does indeed go into what I charge a client.

    Equally as important for me is the longevity of the relationship. Is it a once-off job? Yeah, I’ll be charging the same fees on the page you linked to. But I don’t look for one-time jobs. I go for long-term relationships with clients. When I find these clients, I charge less because the consistent income is worth it for me.

    Thanks for the post and comment,

    Daniel

  19. Dean Rieck on Mar 30th, 2011 5:14 pm
  20. Daniel: I think differently. My location has nothing to do with my fees. And long-term clients pay the same as everyone else and are happy to do so. And just for the record, the fees listed on my other website in the Copywriter Information Center are not my fees, but typical fees for professional-level copywriters. I bill at the equivalent of $500 an hour.

  21. Daniel on Mar 30th, 2011 8:28 pm
  22. Dean,

    Shizaam!

    Daniel

  23. no rules on Apr 13th, 2011 3:42 am
  24. it will be good if u show some TV ad script of 30 seconds. i have read this post of how to make a 30 seconds TV ad script. but it will good if u show any TV script.. thank you

  25. Sarah on Apr 21st, 2011 12:59 pm
  26. I second ‘no rules’ comment on 13th April.

    Show us a sample script please!! Boring for the experienced, but VERY useful for us newbies :0)

  27. Brenda Quiocho on Apr 28th, 2011 7:01 pm
  28. Well, I don’t have a clue what I am doing! So much for scripts

  29. Greg on Jun 23rd, 2011 7:40 am
  30. I was wondering how to go about submitting a commercial script to a company. Is it a standard process to get an agent and have them submit it. I assume unsolicited scripts are alot like unsolicited songs. They get round-filed! Can you walk me through the process?
    I appreciate your pages.

  31. Dean Rieck on Jun 23rd, 2011 2:30 pm
  32. Greg: You don’t need an agent and you don’t “submit” scripts. If a client hires you to write a script, you write the script and get paid. It doesn’t work at all like submitting songs.

  33. Greg on Jun 23rd, 2011 7:01 pm
  34. Perhaps I asked the question incorrectly. I have an idea for a TV commercial. How would I go about getting that idea to the company. I know they would be using an ad agency. Is there any possibility that a person can get their idea to the agency without an advocate of some kind?

  35. Dean Rieck on Jun 23rd, 2011 8:53 pm
  36. Greg: If you want to show a script to a business, such as a local pizza shop or car dealer, just call and make an appointment with the manager or whoever runs the advertising. This is a low probability tactic, though.

    I recommend that you contact local agencies (small ones) and video production houses and show them some sample scripts. If you can form a relationship with one or two, you might get some work as it becomes available.

  37. Reza Ali on Jul 3rd, 2011 2:08 pm
  38. Hi,

    I’ve been surfing the web all night looking for a framework on how to write a tv ad and your site has the best and right kind of resources for me. I’m going to launch my website soon and was thinking that putting a 30 to 45 secs add on the home page as part of the pre launch activity would be a different and unique idea. The call to action are: to join my fb fan page and; to spread the word out to their friends so that they can visit the website. The offer I’ll be making are free resources such as pdfs of articles I’ve written and maybe even mp3s.

    The product would be my expertise on personal and corporate change. I also happen to be handy with video and video editing so I was thinking that the ad(s) would contain me addressing the viewer.

    Does this make sense or have I gone bonkers? My question is would the formula above work for what I want to do?

  39. Dean Rieck on Jul 3rd, 2011 2:23 pm
  40. Reza: You’re not bonkers. This formula might work, but it’s geared for TV ads. I recommend you be less promotional and more personal. Ask yourself: What would I say if I were talking to someone about this?

  41. Reza Ali on Jul 3rd, 2011 8:43 pm
  42. Thanks for replying. I’m going to use the formula and see how it goes. Will let you know once I’ve done it. I’ve gone through a lot of the resources on your site and I think I can now share my story. Thanks….

  43. Reza on Jul 8th, 2011 9:38 pm
  44. Hi Dean.

    I took your advice and have created some Pre launch teaser videos. The Pre launch campaign has already started and I’m getting some results. It is less promotional and more intimate though it’s tough to look at the camera and deliver the lines. I decided to do it in the form of an interview.

    Many thanks for writing this post. I may not have used the formula You mentioned but the article took me in a whole new direction.

    I will definitely use the 30s formula when I start to sell products.

    Until the next time. Cheers.

  45. Catalectic on Jul 14th, 2011 1:39 pm
  46. Who are these centaur-pricks that dissuade creative geniuses and tell them that they “can’t” do anything but local swill? This is why the advertising industry is nothing more than ineffective and mind-numbing crap these days. You have these wannabe intellectual jerks that do and say anything to protect turf that doesn’t belong to them or anyone. I guarantee that people like Dean are the very people that that have no evidence of their advertising brilliance. Just move on and continue to network into the company by methodically bypassing arrogant and greedy men like the author of this very useless piece of web-fodder. Advertising is NOT something that belongs to elitist dream-killers that have no intention of opening the front-door to the real creative prodigies that are out there waiting to bury them with fresh and exciting ideas that they themselves only wish they could mentally manufacture.

  47. Dean Rieck on Jul 14th, 2011 2:51 pm
  48. Alrighty then.

  49. Monika on Jul 25th, 2011 5:45 am
  50. Hi Dean,

    I’ve been asked by a couple of clients to do a video script for YouTube videos. Is it fair to assume that your TV script example would also work for YouTube videos?

    I see what needs to be done, but I’m struggling with the implementation part.

    Can you help me understand what I need to do with the script template and the two columns? Am I to input copy into one column and suggested pictures/stock photos or situations in the other?

    Do you have an actual template that contains text et al to share with us?
    I appreciate your help. :)

  51. Dean Rieck on Jul 25th, 2011 10:45 am
  52. Monika: I can’t say whether this formula would work for you because I don’t know anything about your assignment. The template would work fine, however. Yes, copy in one column, video in the other.

  53. spelly on Nov 23rd, 2011 8:08 am
  54. well i am applying for a place in an advertising school, and i have applied for copy writing but now I am worried about job placements in the industry of copy writing. i would truly love to be the best at what i do but it seems as if, if you do not follow the trend you are most likely to loose. from South Africa

  55. Freddy on Dec 22nd, 2011 7:49 pm
  56. Hi Dean!honestly u saved myday.A’ve been storming my head to wok things out but here is the way forward.
    I have ideals to make ads but i failed in tactical implementation of it and how to sell the ideals(scripts).
    Soon il strt up a TV program and in this project i want to be unique therefore i designed package which can accomodate various commercials in a three different segments therefore i found ur tips very helpful en il take these tw days to work on it.QN:in my work plan i spared 1min for ad at the end of each segment.it can sound good to fix 3ads of 30-sec with in a time frame?thnx.

  57. Dan on Jan 3rd, 2012 2:41 am
  58. I see I’m a little late to the party. In any case, I started a web site called SpecBank.com that provides ad-agency-quality TV commercial scripts to aspiring commercial directors to shoot for their reels. If you’re interested in submitting TV spot scripts, and they’re good, I would distribute them to the members to see if anyone is interested in shooting your ideas. You can also download free samples of TV commercial scripts. Dan

  59. Hollybear on Jan 20th, 2012 12:37 pm
  60. Dean,

    If Catalectic has a problem with your advice, I’m sure they’re welcome to offer a better choice; since they haven’t, I can only surmise that they don’t offer a comparative option of their own. You have, by comment & review, examples of people who’ve benefited from your assistance. . For a beginner or someone doing this for small audiences, I think your completely FREE contribution of advice will serve to start someone on the road as opposed to regaling this cynic in order that they simply never try Thank you for offering assistance and a basic framework to start with.

  61. shunga on Feb 6th, 2012 6:05 pm
  62. A fantastic formula and road map Dean, if one’s intent is to force even more blight on the culture while scraping the bottom of the barrel in craft, style and most assuredly real persuasive effectiveness. Screaming 50% off doesn’t require a copywriter or even a writer, just someone willing to accept the erroneous belief that this complete lack of skill and ability is somehow doing the job. It isn’t. It is however why people dislike advertising, are often offended by advertising and most often turn the channel.
    Be honest with your audience Dean, you couldn’t get a job in the mail room of an agency where people know what they are doing. As being a benefit for beginners, that is only true if one is beginning to be the absolute worst in his or her imagined advertising career. This is not how it works, it is only how real amateurs might go about doing it. You should be ashamed for presenting it as otherwise.

  63. Dean Rieck on Feb 6th, 2012 6:33 pm
  64. Shunga,
    You have no clue what you’re talking about. And as for getting a job at an agency…agencies offer me jobs frequently and they can’t afford me. I bill out at $500 an hour.

  65. shunga on Feb 6th, 2012 6:51 pm
  66. No clue? I wouldn’t hire you, and I’ve hired some of the best in the industry. $500? For what? Dribble passing itself off as effective communication? I’m sure there are agencies out there that would give you a position, that doesn’t make you or them what advertising is about. You are the contemporary version of the carny barker, and you do a great disservice to any who dream of getting into advertising.

    By the way, $500 a day is a flat rate paid to entry level wannabe’s and Mac jockeys. hardly a verification of your imagined skills, though I would be suspect of any ‘agency’ or “client’ who would pay $5 for what you are offering.

  67. Dean Rieck on Feb 6th, 2012 7:14 pm
  68. $500 an hour.

    You’re a troll, shunga. I don’t have time for trolls. Be gone.

  69. shunga on Feb 6th, 2012 8:31 pm
  70. $500 an hour? Really? Who would in their right mind pay you $500 an hour? You sir are delusional, a con artist or a liar. But what you are not is a copywriter, an ad writer, a writer for that matter, or an ad guy. You are a fraud and your advice is worthless, pitifully so.

  71. Dean Rieck on Feb 6th, 2012 8:47 pm
  72. Copywriter Salaries and Fees on my business website:
    http://www.directcreative.com/copywriter-salaries-and-fees.html

    Comprehensive information about freelance copywriting:
    http://www.directcreative.com/copywriter-information-center.html

  73. Tay Cavalier on Mar 22nd, 2012 3:12 pm
  74. Dean,

    how do you suggest I contact local businesses to allow them to see commercials scripts that have been written. And do you suggest me recording the script, since im an inspiring actor?

  75. Burner on May 14th, 2012 5:32 am
  76. Hi Dean,

    Over the years I’ve enjoyed a passion for writing some tv commercials and I think they are real good! I’d love to ‘present’ them to potential business clients or ad agencies, but afraid of them maybe declining my scripts but copying my ideas. Is it practical for a ‘no name’ writer to copyright scripts before ever trying to sell them? I’d love to be just a freelance writer, not tied to an agency, is there a great way to get my scripts out there?

    thnx alot!

  77. jose on Jun 3rd, 2012 2:17 pm
  78. hi! Dean, i am making a self-promo video for an artist/sculptor, can you advise how many seconds should it run?

    thank you

  79. Dean Rieck on Jun 11th, 2012 1:08 pm
  80. Jose: There are no set time limits for online videos, but in general videos should be about 2-4 minutes. They must be long enough to be informative but short enough that people will watch the whole thing.