How to write a direct response TV commercial that sells

December 9, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: How-to Guides 

Unless you specialize in television advertising, you’re not too likely to get a copywriting assignment to write a TV commercial.

But you never know.

I have a background in TV and radio, so I occasionally write for these advertising media, but not as often as I would like. However, when the opportunity arises, I need to know how to handle it. And you do too.

First, watch this classic TV commercial for Ginsu Knives and pay attention to how it is structured. This is the granddaddy of all modern direct response TV (or DRTV) ads. Even though it looks dated, today’s commercials work pretty much the same.

Soda Breaks and Channel Zapping

Judging by the vastly overproduced TV commercials coming out of most ad agencies, you would think people are glued to their TV, attentively absorbing every word. Analyzing and deconstructing every image.

Not quite.

The only people focused on TV commercials are the people producing them. When average Americans watch TV, they’re tuned in to see a specific program, not the commercials, with the possible exception of the Super Bowl.

During commercial breaks, people run to the kitchen for a soda or zap around 150 channels to see what else is on. And what about the distractions? The phone ringing. The dog barking. The kids screaming. Some people just turn on TV to keep them company as they read, eat dinner, or visit friends on Facebook.

In other words, viewers (potential customers) are watching TV, they just aren’t 100% focused on it. And that’s the key. Because viewers are not focused, you have to be. You must present an attention-getting, clear, direct selling message.

This begins by focusing on your goal. Unlike many other TV commercials, in a direct response TV ad you are not creating an image or building a brand, you are generating an action.

There are four main actions for a DRTV spot:

  1. Get an order.
  2. Generate an inquiry.
  3. Produce store traffic.
  4. Support a campaign in another medium.

Before you write a single word, decide what you want viewers to do and focus the entire script on provoking that action. If you have other objectives, create other messages to accomplish them.

The Formula for a DRTV Commercial That Sells

There really is no such thing as a universal formula for a DRTV spot. You might be selling exercise equipment, generating inquiries for financial services, soliciting sponsors for poor children, or any of a dozen other things. Each will have unique requirements.

However, since most spots are pushing a product, I’ll keep this simple and give you one “formula” for generating orders.

1. Get your viewer’s attention. Remember, people are engaged in all sorts of activities besides watching TV. And even if they’re watching, they might not really be paying attention. So you have to break through the fog and grab your viewer.

Research shows that viewer interest rises or falls dramatically during the first 5 seconds. To quote Kenneth Roman and Jane Maas in How to Advertise, “Commercial attention does not build. Your audience can only become less interested, never more. The level you reach in the first 5 seconds is the highest you will get, so don’t save your punches.”

2. Present a problem. Your time is severely limited in any TV commercial. Even a 2-minute spot goes by fast, so you can’t dawdle. The best way to get attention is to dive right in and present a problem your viewer can identify with. Show the problem or demonstrate the old way of doing something. Universally-experienced problems are best, the more common and troublesome the better.

3. Solve the problem. Once you have presented the problem, show how your product is the solution. This should be a simple, immediate demonstration. Show before and after. Show results. Show benefits. Think visually and dramatize everything.

4. Make an offer. Give the price, clear ordering instructions, terms, and a call to action. Add extra incentives, such as premiums, a lower price, related items, add-ons, or anything else to increase the value of the offer.

Since you probably want a phone order, push your toll-free number hard. Show it. Say it. And since people may want to write it down, you have to say it often enough to embed it in their memory or give them time to find a pencil and paper or dial the number.

If you’re driving traffic to a store or a website, specify the location or Web address you want people to go to.

5. Guarantee your offer. A guarantee is essential to lower the doubts of your viewer. There is always the thought “What if this doesn’t work? What if I don’t like it? What if there’s a problem?” An unconditional, money-back guarantee removes these doubts at the moment of decision.

6. Add an urgent call to action. You want response now, not later. When people put off action until later, they tend not to act at all. Most direct response offers on TV work because of impulse, and that impulse may vanish quickly.

The entire gist of your message should be “Buy now or you will lose this opportunity.” This can take the form of time or quantity limits, rewards for fast response, or directive language that urges the viewer to “Call now” and “Hurry.”

Some of these tips may seem elementary, but you’d be surprised how often novice copywriters torpedo a TV commercial script because they don’t focus on such basics.

Now go back and watch the Ginsu Knives commercial again and see how it uses the formula I’ve just outlined. Things haven’t changed much over the years, have they?

Note: The phone number call to action is missing at the end of this commercial. If it were running on TV today, a unique number would appear, along with ordering details, and the announcer would encourage the viewer to call immediately.


Related posts:

  1. How to write a 30-second TV commercial script
  2. How to write a postcard for maximum response
  3. 3 “must-have” elements of direct response copywriting
  4. How to write a complete direct mail package
  5. How to write a powerful, response-boosting guarantee

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Smart Comments

10 Comments on How to write a direct response TV commercial that sells

    [...] 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, [...]

    [...] you like, you can also visit my copywriting blog for more details on writing TV commercials, specifically direct response commercials. The formula is a little more detailed here, but the idea [...]

  1. Telebrands on Jul 2nd, 2010 2:53 pm
  2. Thanks for the tips on how to properly plan a direct response TV commercial using a pioneer commercial as the example. Good post.

    [...] Get some other advice on writing the script for your TV ad. [...]

  3. Kymaro on Jul 15th, 2010 10:55 am
  4. Amusing example for structuring a DRTV ad. Thanks for the info.

  5. Ajit Khubani Fans on Jul 29th, 2010 3:38 pm
  6. Thanks for giving advice on how to write a TV commercial script. I agree that studying the classic direct response TV ads like knife sets is a good basis to understanding the structure of how to effectively write one.

    [...] you like, you can also visit my copywriting blog for more details on writing TV commercials, specifically direct response commercials. The formula is a little more detailed here, but the idea [...]

  7. Nikki May | Web Content Writer on Sep 11th, 2010 2:50 am
  8. Thanks for the classic TV knives commercial you’ve provided and the overview for structuring a DRTV ad. I need to write for a small TV commercial for a small charity organization – and this is exactly what I was looking for! Thanks.

  9. Meltzer Media on Nov 24th, 2010 2:43 pm
  10. Even with the dated look, it seems like this commercial has a similar structure as other more modern DRTV commercials.

  11. Andrea on Jan 12th, 2012 10:26 am
  12. Direct response seems to be a good tactic when you’re limited on advertising dollars and you want to market your small business or brand. Thanks for posting.