How to Make a Stock Footage Commercial That Doesn't Suck

3 tips for finding success when you can't shoot

Stock footage used to be reserved for infomercials and industrials with titles like "Know your Flange Family." Now, thanks to the pandemic, it's everywhere.

Here's what I've learned about how to make a TV spot when you don't have the luxury of shooting, whether it's because of budget or time or a worldwide health crisis.

Don't write a manifesto ad.

They're great in a new-business pitch to sell your amazing new tagline. But they've always been dangerous. Because with very few exceptions they are all the same and they're all boring. And because, more often than not, clients will fall in love with the manifesto and want you to produce it.

You'll protest. "What about all that incredibly cool work we showed after the manifesto?"

"Too edgy. And too expensive. We like that manifesto." 

And then, all of a sudden, you're falling asleep looking at boring cuts on your laptop at your kitchen table at midnight. Pining for the days of shoots, and craft service tables, and dinners in swanky L.A. restaurants.

Tailor the idea to a category of specific images.

Finding a theme and running with it in stock footage, particularly if you're using the stock scenes to make a novel point, is a much better use of stock than, say, stringing together scenes of business people on phones and shirtless dads holding babies and spunky teenagers dancing down the street wearing slightly outdated headphones.

For example, I recently created a regional Super Bowl ad for Novant Health, a big healthcare system in North Carolina. The brief was to convince people to get the Covid vaccine. I thought, hmmm, vaccines happen in arms. And I betcha we can find a lot of shots of arms. Strong arms, happy arms, inspirational arms. 

What we wound up creating was a memorable film that makes a strong point about getting your Covid vaccine. A film that you might actually remember for longer than it takes for Tom Brady to win another tasteful but gigantic ring. 

Novant Health | Arms
Consider a famous song.

A great soundtrack can elevate even a mediocre film. This is known either as the Purple Rain or Flash Gordon rule of cinema. Both of those movies weren't the best. But we watched them anyway, because, you know, "When Doves Cry" and Freddie Mercury singing "Flash! Ah huh!"

Putting a great music track on a stock footage ad gives it more emotional heft, more gravitas, more oomph. And don't forget, if you've got a regional client, licensing costs can be far more reasonable for a run that is limited by your client's geographic footprint.

So, there you go. Three quick tips to make your stock footage spot not like all the others. 

The bottom line is, if you have  to use stock footage, this is my advice. Try. Try thinking beyond the usual solutions. Try to use the scenes in a way they weren't intended. Try getting a great song. Try something.

(Full disclosure, I was reading an ad industry pub recently and I saw an article about two brands using the same stock footage scene in their Super Bowl spots. A warm feeling of schadenfreude spread throughout my body as I clicked on the article. The warm feeling stopped cold when I discovered that my "Arms" spot was in fact a third in that ignominious list. Which illustrates the fact that using stock footage isn't foolproof. But if you've got a good idea that uses the film to make a strong point, it's far less likely that anyone will care that you used the same charmingly authentic, relatively well-lit shot of a dad giving his kid a piggyback ride.) 

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Wil Boudreau
Wil Boudreau is founder and chief creative officer of Boudreau Advertising.

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