Strategy & Marketing

It’s Time to Get Real

Reality matters in Christian media and church communication as well as network TV...

Just when we thought “reality” programming on the major TV networks was reaching it’s end, we discovered that the audience ratings are higher than ever. We wondered what this could mean for faith-based producers and broadcasters – even for advertising and commercials. These are important concepts to consider if your desire is to strengthen your connection to today’s audience:

It’s All About What’s Real

Advertising teacher Roy Williams has been writing recently about the explosion of reality programming. Reality TV is certainly not new, following hot on the heels of what he calls the “Fantasy Adventure” fad in programming and advertising that reached a peak in the eighties. A year ago I would have predicted the certain death of reality programs, but I have to admit, their staying power is amazing. Surviving on islands, finding a new wife for dad, challenging obstacles and horrors, seeking wives and husbands, living in houses with Tammy Faye and porn stars, the flood of bizarre reality concepts continues unabated.

But now, Williams is preaching the gospel of reality advertising, as the trend in reality programming has trickled down into the commercials that surround the programs. Certainly, as a commercial director, I’ve seen a strong increase in clients wanting to portray real people instead of actors, less gloss and hype, and more “real life” situations in spots.

So as faith-based producers, how can we maximize the trend in reality advertising to the commercials we create for our programs, products, and services? Here are some thoughts and ideas as you brainstorm your next advertising campaign:

Use more real people. Instead of setting up situations portrayed with actors, find real executives, flight attendants, book store owners, housewives, etc. Dump the pre-written scripts, and let real people tell the story in their own words.

Don’t worry about shooting and editing a perfect spot. A number of years ago, I produced and directed a series of segments for the nationwide TV broadcast of a national political convention. Major advertising agencies were involved since it was a presidential election, so I did my best to shoot and edit a series of flawless segments. But during the screening, the Creative Director of the largest ad agency said: “The segments are too good. If people feel they’re too slick, they won’t believe us. Take them back to the editing room and make them a little rough around the edges.” I have to admit that was the first time a client told me my project was “too good.” So I made a few of the edits less then perfect, de-focused a few shots, shook the camera a little, and sure enough, the agency loved them, and they were very well received during the national broadcast. I learned an important lesson: It’s important that the audience feels like you’re being honest, and not pulling something over on them.

Finally, as Roy Williams says: “Refer to things in your ads that you know your customers have experienced.” I call this technique “using a reality hook.” If they’ve experienced the situation in their own personal lives, it’s more likely they’ll identify with the product or service.

Do You Really Understand Your Client’s Vision?

The key to any successful advertising campaign is understanding your client’s vision. In the ministry world, the “client” is often a pastor, evangelist, or ministry leader. Perhaps you’re working on a TV commercial with a client, or perhaps a training video or religious program for a pastor or ministry leader. Whatever your situation, to produce a successful program or spot, you have to completely understand your client’s vision and goals for the project.

I recently arranged for a television producer to interview for a position as head of the media department at a major organization. After the interview, the producer called me in a rather upset voice and said, “I was interested in a job opportunity, but they wanted me to sign on for their vision.” He was not happy, and as a result, turned down the job offer. My response to the producer was the exact opposite of what he expected. I told him that “signing on to a client’s vision” is the critical first step in any project we undertake. In fact, if a potential client doesn’t have a vision for what they want to accomplish, then I’m not interested in working with them.

There are media producers who have worked with clients, bosses, pastors, executives, and other leaders for years, yet have never really understood their vision and goals. Therefore, their programs never reach their potential. How do you do it? Here’s a few simple ways:

Before you ever begin a project, sit down with the executive, agency, ministry leader, investor, or client and ask direct questions about why he or she’s doing this, what he hopes to achieve, what his motivation is, and how he’ll measure success. Don’t be embarrassed. They’re asking you to be the media gatekeeper to a massive audience. If you don’t have all the answers you need, you’ll be cheating everyone involved.

Read anything you can get your hands about the client. Books, teaching tapes, magazine or newspaper articles, bio information–anything that will tell you his or her history, background, areas of expertise, etc. You can also talk to friends and get their impressions and learn from their experiences with the client.

Decide ahead of time if this is something you can commit to with passion and excitement. You can’t succeed in a project you don’t believe in. Perhaps you don’t like the product or service, perhaps the chemistry just isn’t right with the client, or perhaps you find integrity or character problems. Whatever it might be, if it keeps you from approaching the project with enthusiasm, then don’t waste your time.

Finally, remember it’s not just a job, it’s all about vision. As the Bible says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” It’s not any different in the media.

It’s Time to Think Outside the TV Box

Culture mavens in the advertising world met in Cannes, France recently to discuss technologies like Tivo and other media choices, which are making producers of traditional TV advertising nervous. Is it the death of the medium as we know it? Absolutely not. But the field is getting more interesting, as advertisers look for new and innovative ways to get the right message to the right audience.

Years ago I partnered with a longtime advertising executive and major movie producer to launch a new commercial production company. Our goal was to bring expertise from advertising, television, and the movies in an attempt to breakthrough traditional barriers and discover what’s next in the advertising world. We successfully produced major commercials for companies like Verizon, Snapple, Alstate, Home Depot, Kraft Foods, and more. We even produced a 15 minute short film for a client’s website for what back then was a new type of advertising called “branded content.”

Through my continued work in religious broadcasting, as well as this venture in secular advertising, I hope to stay on top of the incredible changes happening in the media so that our message of hope is never dimmed, and our connection to the culture remains strong. I would encourage you to do the same. Study the culture, and learn what attracts an audience. Jesus Christ was a master communicator who “understood the signs of the times.” As present day communicators of His message, we should do no less.

Because when it comes to advertising, as Dorothy said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore…”

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  1. I totally agree with getting in tune with the vision. That should streamline the production process and create a better end result for a project. However, in the reality field, the danger I see most often is the producer or director feels that they can just "roll tape" and find "that reality" often gets lost shooting way more than is needed and they end up with a nightmare in post — They did not budget the time needed to put all the pieces together. They did not get a cohesive message, only parts. The best reality shows are scripted. A lot of thought goes into creating the story. They carefully construct a vision- then let it fly. They are not winging it off the top of their heads, working off loose ideas they hope come together in post. I find that "reality mentality method" in church media often cuts down on the important process of pre-production. Cast and crew may be winging it in different directions. True — a good director can harness all that energy and focus it into "the vision" but your still taking chances and less experienced media people think they are getting one thing and wind up with something different. Taking something perfect and roughing it up is a lot easier than roughing it up and trying to make it perfect. That "handheld" "rough around the edges" style has to be executed well or the difference between being edgy and being hokey will be very apparent. Your approach was skillful and thought out. You did your homework, you did your pre-production then you executed your plan– it didn't just happen because you picked up a camera and shot something — Unfortunately that is the "reality" mentality that comes out in church media. The person in charge will think– just pick up the camera, run out and get the moment- it will be brilliant — Not so -average Joe. Why play lotto with your media. 

  2. Good subject. Gives me some things to think about. I have found that the best commercials we have done have only come after we have really sat down and considered what message was being sent.  There have been a lot of times in Christian Media that we are in such a hurry to meet a deadline you just throw something together to get it done. I really hate that. 

    On another note, I bought the movie 3. Good movie, I didn't expect that ending. 

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