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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

Creating Comedic Characters That Can Sell Anything: Part II

Writing funny commercials

Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

As I explained last week, if you can create a well-designed character it can live for a very long time. But what I failed to mention is that it also makes your job a lot easier. The characters practically write the jokes themselves, because the humor comes out of the situation and how the characters react to it.

Last week we looked at conflict, flaws and designing ensemble casts. This week we’ll explore three-dimensional characters and character keys.

If you thoroughly understand the three dimensions of your characters, they will act, feel and speak consistently. The bone structure of your characters needs these three dimensions.

  • Physical – deformity, height, beauty, disability, sex, age, weight, hair, skin, eyes, posture, appearance, defects, heredity.

  • Sociology – social status, income, environment, friends, class, occupation, education, home life, religion, race, place in community, political affiliations, hobbies.

  • Psychology (a combination of physical and sociology) – frustration, attitude toward life, ambition, moral standards, ambitions, obsessions, talents, temperament, qualities, I.Q.

Contradictions and pressure create drama. The exaggeration of these contradictions and pressure creates great comedy. There should be conflicts in the character’s traits. Focus on one dominant trait that you can exploit for laughs. In this example, “First Date” from Hyundai, the father (played by Kevin Hart) is willing to accept that his daughter is old enough to date, but doesn’t trust the young man she’s dating. The conflict drives him to extremes.

Character keys or touches are fine points that reveal the true nature of the character through action or dialogue. They both underline a character’s motivation. Stopping to straighten the rug tells us volumes about the character without saying a word. This example from Axe, “Find Your Magic,” is a laundry list of character keys.

Charlie Chaplin selected clothes that didn’t fit (or match) for the character The Little Tramp. The pants were baggy and the jacket too tight. He was a man struggling to just make it work, no matter what life threw at him. Use your wardrobe description to reveal insights into the character.

Consider the Volkswagen commercial “VW Tree.” One man’s shirt is un-tucked. How long do you think they were throwing things before his shirt become un-tucked? Or was it because of the accident?

Think about how you will layer on character keys. Will the character do it with words, body movement, wardrobe or props? Is there a certain facial expression the character uses?

Make sure each character brings their day with them. Understand what happened to the character earlier in the day or immediately leading up to this point. Give each character layers the actor can play. For example, each of the condiment characters has a different, subtle way of reacting to the hot dogs in the Heinz commercial “Meet the Ketchups.”

When you put characters in conflict with their environment, this instantly gives the character comedic tension. For example, in the Oreo Super Bowl commercial “Cream Cookie,” the firemen and police speak in a whisper because they’re in a library.

When you give a character a name, you give him or her flesh. The name should project the personality of the character. Gary is an ordinary guy. Zack is younger than Gary. Joey is a working-class guy. Ethan has an edge. There's something daring about a girl named Montana. Mr. Turkle is a kindly plumber all the kids in the neighborhood like. And so on.

Putting in the time and hard work it takes to understand your characters and add layers to them makes everyone’s job easier. Audiences don’t always call out these small, important points, but everyone remembers, “Where’s the beef?” That’s where most writers stop. Respect your characters, and everyone from the actors and crew to the audience and client will love you for it.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike


Want to know more about writing jokes for these great characters? Read, "The Most Amazing Method of Writing Killer Jokes."

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