Here’s How to Write a Good TV Commercial Script (With Steps)

Nov 25, 2022 / Industry Insights / FOTW

Contrary to what you might believe, writing a TV commercial script is quite different compared to your typical screenwriting script for a television series or a movie. Not only are TV ads much, much shorter, but the way in which a TV advert needs to convey the necessary information requires a bit more detail. The best TV advertisements have been written this way for decades, and it’s very much the industry standard.

The number one thing to remember when writing your TV commercial script is that your ad needs to be super punchy, and in just thirty seconds, you’ve got to say everything that you need to say. That definitely sounds harder than it seems, so how exactly do you write a TV ad script like a pro? In this article, we’ll show you all you need to know about how to write a script for a commercial and take you through the steps to writing a great TV ad.

What is the format of a TV ad script?

If you want to make sure your TV ad’s message comes across loud and clear, it’s important to think about how you’re going to deliver your information. It’s all about the detail when it comes to writing a TV commercial. This is why it’s really important to format your TV ad script correctly. Again, TV ad scripts are very different to that of a regular TV show, with most scripts — including radio ad scripts —tending to only feature dialogue.

However, when it comes to writing a TV ad script, the differences can be seen at first glance. When writing a TV commercial, its script will be divided into two columns, sometimes three, with a separate emphasis on what the TV ad viewer will see and what they’ll hear. Here’s what the script looks like for a MrQ TV advert that we made:

As you can see, the body of the script itself is separated into three columns — VIDEO, AUDIO and ALTS. In most cases, having the VIDEO and AUDIO columns would suffice, but the ALTS column is helpful to provide alternative lines for the commercial. The more options, the better, and it saves going back into the recording studio and the client being charged more money. Alts allow agencies to either update the advert at a later date or give the client flexibility in choosing preferred lines. It also allows us to swap out lines that Clearcast might not give clearance for the ad to go live. In a nutshell, it gives ad agencies and their clients alternative options to work with.

The most important elements of a TV ad script

So, now you know what a typical TV commercial script looks like, you might believe that you’re already prepared to get started on writing one yourself. However, before you do that, we need to tell you more about the most important elements of writing a TV commercial script. There are three crucial elements that make up a TV ad script:

The header

The header of a TV commercial script is just as important as the body. Within the heading, all the details regarding the TV ad project are outlined and highlighted, making it easier to reference when necessary. A TV ad script’s header also ensures that everyone working on creating the advert — from production, filming and post-production — all have a single source of truth to reference throughout the process.

At the very top of the TV commercial script, you should write:

  • Name of the client
  • Title of the spot
  • Job No. (This is important for everyone to keep track of and clearcast will use this number for their reference)
  • Length of the ad, in seconds and the platform i.e TV
  • Name of VO artist
  • Date the script was written

 

Video column

The information regarding what the audience sees is provided in this left column titled “VIDEO”. When compared to a screenplay, visuals are more important than dialogue because they convey information through scene descriptions and action lines, both of which require clear yet succinct wording in order for them to resonate with potential customers who read it like reading any other advertisement copy written specifically towards that audience. 

Sometimes, adding storyboards to the VIDEO column can be extremely helpful with visualising what specific scenes of the TV commercial should look like, especially if it’s live-action. It’s also key to add any supers (legal for Clearcast to review when the script is uploaded to their platform, ensuring ad agencies get ahead of the legal side early)— an important TV advertising term referring to any text superimposed on the screen — to the VIDEO section of the TV ad script, too. Again, the TV commercial script will be a source of truth for all aspects of the production process, so ensuring that all the relevant information is on the script is crucial to a smooth ride.

Therefore, think creatively when considering how to best portray this product visually while still remaining true to the brand. The visual language must be clear and direct in order to appeal to the demographic that is being targeted. Your script should also be in line with the branding and tone of voice of the company that you are working for by effectively communicating the company’s goals, values, and strategies provided in the brief with the creative idea that would need to reflect what the company wants to say. Writing that is easy to understand is essential, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re trying to sell a story!

Audio column

All dialogue, voice-over, sound effects, and music should be written in the audio column on the right side of the script. Always put each piece of audio content next to its visual counterpart on paper. That way, the script’s reader knows exactly when the sound effect or dialogue occurs in conjunction with the scene’s specific visual description. 

Dialogue in a TV commercial script tends to look like this: the character’s name in all capitals, followed by a colon, and then the dialogue itself. For instance, from this Sky Broadband ad, the AUDIO column of the script may look something like this: 

“V.O.: Switching to Sky is easy with our dedicated Switch Squad. MINION WHOOPING.” 

Music and sound effects are also featured in the audio section. If you want to make sure your commercial is exactly the right duration, it’s a good idea to note down how long each audio part is. Better yet, try to set a specific timestamp for each scene of the TV ad — alongside its corresponding VIDEO part, of course. To help, ad production companies usually record the VO and time it before sending it to the client and going into the studio so that they know the script works within the 30” timeframe.

Steps to writing a great TV ad script

Now that you know the most important aspects of writing a TV commercial, it’s time to get started on your own! We’ve outlined five easy steps to how to write an advertisement script that you can reference whenever you need to.

1. Format the script

Screenwriting and writing for television commercials are two very different forms of writing. When creating a screenplay, it is imperative to employ specialised scriptwriting software to maintain uniformity in formatting; however, this is not the case when writing scripts for television advertisements. To compose the script for your commercial, you are free to use whichever word processor you like, provided that you adhere to the fundamental formatting requirements — although scripts are pretty standard and won’t change much from one agency to another.

Remember those previously provided TV commercial writing samples, and make sure to take all of our recommendations into consideration. With all that in mind, you’ll be able to write a great TV commercial script.

2. Outline the story

TV commercials generally only run for 30, 60, or 90 seconds, whereas the average running time for a feature film is between 75 and 210 minutes. Due to the limited amount of time available, it is impossible to attempt a multifaceted plot that contains a number of unexpected turns and twists (although you could try!). 

When creating an advert for television, it is in your best interest to keep the story as straightforward as possible. Before you start writing your script, you should formulate an idea. The idea is the most important part as this is what’s going to grab attention, the script will come from the idea.

3. Set the tone

Think back on the adverts that left the most lasting impressions on you. Which ones were they? What kind of an impact did they have on you? The majority of the time, commercials that are successful on television are successful because they adopt a tone that is consistent with the brand identity of the client. Again the idea is the most important. If the idea has a talking point (like the Cadbury ad with the gorilla), or a moment of hilarity, then this will only reflect well on the brand and build trust in the brand.

The role of a scriptwriter stimulates creativity, but TV advertising must be contained within the parameters of a company’s identity alongside its tone of voice. Keep in mind that different brands and products require different tones, and experiment with different emotions to match the appropriate tone for each brand or product. But overall, when creating a TV ad, there’s a delicate balance between sticking to brand identity and ensuring that the ad itself stands out from the rest.

4. Use the brand assets across all channels

Whether this is the first time you’ve written advertisements for the client or you’re starting from scratch, you need to make sure that all of the advertisements you write for them have the same tone and sound. The television commercials for all of the top-tier brands follow a standard format, and the vast majority of the time, they centre on a single overarching theme using familiar brand assets.

These themes can be represented by using consistent assets, whether that be a character, VO artist, colour schemes, or using the same style across your commercials. Some popular characters that you might know from TV commercials are the GEICO gecko, the Energizer Bunny and the “Old Spice Guy” or, closer to home in the UK, the meerkats for comparethemarkets.com.

5. Define a clear call to action

There is no type of advertising that is more powerful than the television commercial, and there is no form of marketing material that is more successful than the call to action (CTA). A CTA in an advertisement outlines the action that the watched audience is expected to provide. CTAs are a core aspect of creating a Direct Response TV advert but as just as important in any other TV advertising format.

In TV commercial scripts, CTAs are often saved for the last few lines before the advert ends and is written similarly to a super in the VIDEO column — regardless of whether it’s in graphics or plain text (though remember to mark them appropriately!). Make sure the wording you use in your call to action is as compelling as the commercial’s overall story so that people take action as soon as they’ve seen it.

Important TV ad script shorthands to learn

Much like all the important TV advertising terms, there are a few shorthands that tend to be used when it comes to writing a TV commercial. These shorthands help convey what is needed from the crew during the TV ad production process and also help save a lot of time and paper space when writing the script itself. With that said, here are the seven most common TV ad script shorthands that you should know:

  1. GFX — Short for “graphics”, and sometimes written as “CGI”. This should be used within the VIDEO column before describing any graphics to appear on-screen during the commercial. For example: “GFX: Three Lego figures grin in front of a service truck.”
  2. SFX — Stands for “sound effects” and should be written into the AUDIO column before describing a sound effect that will be heard in the ad. An example could be “SFX: Doorbell rings.“
  3. MUSIC — Indicate musical selections in the AUDIO column by providing a brief description of the musical style you have in mind. Example, “MUSIC: Upbeat dance music.”
  4. MONTAGE — Whenever you’re thinking about shooting a series of short shots in sequence, you should mark the VIDEO column with this term.
  5. C.U., M.S., W.S. — These stand for “close up”, “mid shot”, and “wide shot”, respectively, and should be used in the VIDEO column to direct how a specific shot should be filmed.
  6. V.O. — Means “voiceover” and should be used to pinpoint voiceover dialogue in the AUDIO column and separates them from any characters or actors on-screen.
  7. O.S. — Stands for “off-screen”. This is generally used in the AUDIO column to indicate dialogue or sounds that might come from outside the current scene’s visuals. Example: “TIGER (O.S.): Fore! FOLLOWED BY THE SOUND OF A GOLF CLUB HITTING A GOLF BALL.”

 

Final thoughts

When it comes to writing a TV commercial, it’s important to keep in mind that TV commercial scripts are vastly different to that of a typical script written for a series or movie. Equipped with our guide on how to write a script for a commercial, you should be able to get started with writing your own TV ad script right now! But if you’d rather leave it to the pros, be sure to hire a professional TV ad agency to sort out every aspect of your TV advertising campaign — from scriptwriting to broadcast!

Keen on seeing what TV advertising can bring to your brand? Get in touch with an experienced advertising agency who’ll be able to help you get the job done!