Boys Town National TV Spots: Keep It Simple, Son

A couple of years ago, Boys Town was presented with the opportunity to partner with cable television giants HGTV and DIY to air television commercials across the nation. The spots would be produced by Envoy in Omaha but would be bookended by 30-second bumpers that showed an actual renovation that was taking place at the organization’s Central Florida campus, located just northeast of Orlando.

As a newly hired writer/producer, I was tasked with coming up with a concept that would befit this national stage. I was a bit daunted, to say the least. After much thought, I determined that the spots should be simple, to-the-point and focus directly on the kids — which is, after all, what Boys Town does.

I asked myself what a Boys Town success story would look like. Almost immediately, I realized that it would look like a normal, well-adjusted teenager. In other words, if Boys Town did its job, you shouldn’t be able to tell one of its kids from any other adolescent.

That was my “aha” moment.

We would show a group of regular teenagers with a single Boys Town kid mixed in. The voice-over narration would ask the audience which was the teen who had grown up with drug-addicted parents and lived his or her life in the shadow of gang violence (or something to that effect). The narrator would then pause and say, “Can’t tell? Good.” And then go on to explain how Boys Town provides at-risk kids with the “family, stability and care they need to succeed.” The spots would close with a simple, but compelling, call to action: “Every child’s story deserves a happy ending. Help us write another one today.” Then, as the cherry on top, the actual Boys Town kid would appear and reveal him or herself by saying, “It was me.”

After the concept was approved internally without changes, it was then approved by the client — also without changes. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard of that happening?) It was then time to move on to casting and production.

As the visuals would be extremely simple, I knew that the voice over would have to do the heavy lifting for the spot, so I recommended hiring a known talent who would be able to elevate the spot to national status. Working with a talent broker in New York, we eventually settled on the actor Scott Bakula, who would record the spot in Los Angeles while I directed him remotely here in Omaha. Working with Bakula was an extremely positive experience. He was very easy-going and took direction well. And from his first read through, it was evident that he was in tune with the material. It took just 45 minutes to record three, 30-second voice overs. Now all we needed was the visual element.

Music, too, would be important. So I worked with Steve Horner to produce an original score that would set off the spot without being obtrusive. As he has done on so many occasions before, Steve came through on his first attempt, translating my garbled input into music that perfectly complemented the concept.

We shot the raw footage against a green screen in a studio here in Omaha. Several teens were rounded up from a local talent agency and took their turns being “normal” as they looked into the camera lens. One teen per spot would be our “ringer” — an actual Boys Town kid with a difficult back story. After we had the coverage we needed, we adjourned to the edit suite to produce the final commercials.

As I recall, it didn’t take long for the spots to come together. After all, the concept was solid, the voice over was recorded, the music was ideal and the actual shots were extremely simple. It was simply a case of piecing them together. When we were done, we had two story spots and one general spot.

When it was all over, we had three solid television spots that wouldn’t look out of place next to a Pepsi or Nike commercial in a national rotation. We were very happy, and more importantly, so was our client. The spots went on to win several awards, including a couple of Tellys. And they helped raise awareness for Boys Town and its cause.

In the end — as it is in so many cases — simple was best. Rather than piling on components (flashy graphics, animations, etc.), we reduced the concept to its core: What does a Boys Town success story look like?

Then again, that’s really just Advertising 101: Sell the benefit, not the feature. Also known as, “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”