Self-Produced Commercial Footage?

Dear Bonnie,

Your column continues to inspire me and I find myself sending more and more people to your resources as they are invaluable for all actors!

You advise beginning actors who lack screen credits to produce their own material for their demo reels. If one chooses to create commercials, should the commercials be for fictitious products or services? Or, if using actual brand names, is it important to polish the production value to convince the viewer the commercial is real? It’s hard for do-it-yourselfers to emulate $500,000 budgets with $19.95.

My guess is most industry folk watching a reel will be able to spot the real ads from self-produced ads, but do they care? If the actor’s delivery is spot-on, will their credibility suffer because of lackluster production value? Or worse, will the actor appear amateurish or desperate creating their own material for lack of getting cast in legitimate productions?

I’ve been helping many peers lately with getting material for demo reels and I want to be sure I’m giving them useful material.

Thank you for your continued awesomeness! 🙂
Justen Overlander

Great questions, Justen. First, very few actors with professional credits are using commercials on their demo reels. Because the existence of commercial footage could indicate a conflict with another product or service, commercial actors tend to include language like “conflicts upon request” on their resumés and rarely roll out their commercial footage, even if the conflict has lapsed.

Basically, because you’d have a hard time getting cast in a McDonald’s commercial if you’ve been seen all over the world hawking Burger King, it’s less common than you’d think that actors want to show off their commercials.

That said, on to your actual question: For those who do choose to shoot self-produced commercials, must the product or service be a real thing, and if so, must the production value be outstanding? Well, you’re always going to want to have the best production values possible because that makes you look your best. So, there’s that. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will think a commercial shot on a self-producing actor’s budget was an actual commercial (most of the time) simply because commercials are shot on feature film level budgets lately!

As for the product or service being depicted, if you were to ask the company up front for permission, you’d get a NO probably every time. They just don’t want to risk that you skew their image in a negative light, or that someone think your commercial is real, however unlikely that may be. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” in this case.

Because a commercial product or service would have to prove that your self-produced spot cost them sales or revenue, it’s almost impossible to sue someone for such damages. Heck, look at the beef industry’s attempt to take down Oprah Winfrey for saying she’d never eat another burger, during one of her shows. They actually did prove that sales plummeted after her anti-beef statements, but not to enough of a degree to get any damages or a settlement out of her whatsoever.

So, let’s say you do a commercial for Crest toothpaste and it’s cute and funny and effective at doing exactly what you hoped it would do: Showcase your work as a commercial pitchman. Great. You have it on your demo reel, posted at your website, and maybe up on YouTube or Facebook. Cool. Crest gets wind of it and decides it has a problem with it. Either you weren’t totally on-brand in their opinion and the risk of watering down their image is one they’re concerned with, or you were over the top and even though you can claim satire for protection, they’d still really rather you take the spot down.

And that’s exactly what they’ll ask you to do. They’ll send a letter or email asking you to remove the spot and giving you a deadline by which you need to have done so, or else you’ll be hearing from more aggressive attorney types. Take it down. It’s not worth the hassle.

Of course, this is just my advice based on my experience having seen many dozens of self-produced spots shot and posted up online. Very rarely does anything go viral and get the attention of the people who really, really care about these things being “real” so you get the benefit of having the material out there as a means of showing of your work (which is the point). Of course, if you’re still concerned, I’d say make up a product, decide what its brand should be, and shoot away! Show off how very creative you are as a self-producer by inventing the widget you want to advertise from scratch. Then the only calls you have to be concerned with receiving are ones from folks wanting to know how to hire you to do more cool stuff!

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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