July 07, 2013

Three Guidelines for Supers

I've published a few lists of guidelines and criteria over the years, typically covering broad topics. Recently, however, I had occasion to share my list of guidelines for a narrower topic: The use of on-screen text -- i.e. "supers" -- in a DRTV commercial.

It's interesting to note that the vast majority of commercials that air on TV today do not uses supers (as we understand them): The technique appears to be unique to our form of advertising. Moreover, having attempted to review every short-form spot produced in the last 10 years, I've noted quite a wide range of preferences when it comes to their use. Some fill their spots with so many supers, you want to check if your closed captioning feature has accidentally been activated. Others are more judicious.

In any case, here are my three guidelines for supers:

  1. Don't use supers in the opening of a commercial. The opening is a critical moment when you are trying to grab attention and draw people into your spot. Even the best supers are ultimately clutter/a distraction.
  3. Make sure supers and audio match. Brain research suggests that when we read words, we actually "hear" them in our heads. So if the audio in a commercial (e.g. the VO) says the same thing we are reading/hearing in our head, the selling message will be reinforced and clear. But if it says something different, the message will become garbled and confused -- or we will tune out one message and focus only on the other.
  5. Supers generally aren't necessary when the video communicates well. Many scenes communicate well with the audio off. In DR especially, we do a great job of showing people rather than telling them, often to the point where audio is unnecessary. Whenever a scene achieves that aim, a super again becomes unnecessary clutter.

To stimulate further thought and conversation, I solicited feedback from a few of the industry's True Top Producers, which I have reproduced below:

John Miller & Peter Hutton, Hutton-Miller

"Overall, your rules for supers are spot on. One of the other rules to which we adhere is that no more than 60% of the spot should have supers in it. However, our methodology is more about how the spot is written and shot. The supers act to support that. The product is the star of the show, not the supers.

"A good DR spot, or spot in general, should be able to sell you with your eyes closed because the writing is so good. Or sell you if there were no sound because the visuals convey the message so well. The supers are the last thing we do as reinforcements of a written or visual point. And, so as not to draw your eyes away from key visuals, we rarely add effects to supers. We make them static. We also place them so that they guide your eyes to the image we want to be reinforced."

Fred Paddock & Steve Zeoli, Paddock Productions

"Our philosophy is, 'Say a duck, see a duck.' That is, the picture needs to show what the announcer is saying. When supers are used, they should 'enhance and remind' to further illustrate something. Too many supers can end up confusing the primary messaging."

Derek Schwartz, The Schwartz Group

"The only thing I may add is when performing a full demonstration in a spot, we try not to support it with supers so as not to distract from the demo. If we do, we make sure it does not touch any part of the demo that’s in action. Also, we add a lot more supers in our long-form shows (and the spots within the show) than we do in our short-form spots."

Fred Vanore, Blue Moon Studios

"I agree with most of what you are saying. I believe that some video needs to be watched to get the full benefit of the demonstration. In those cases, I'm a firm believer in no supers.

"As for the supers matching exactly what the voice-over says, I differ on this. Sometimes the voice-over is more complex than can be easily supered, but you still want to re-confirm the point in some way -- as long as it doesn't become a distraction from viewing the demonstration.

"One other point: Some commercials have far too many supers. The spot becomes a reading exercise, and the visual message is lost."

What's your opinion? Post a comment here.


  1. Good job Jordan, more is not better, but none is not enough. The comment on the matching to the VO is very interesting. Thinking that our customer is processing two different data streams at once is a stretch.

  2. Sometimes the amount of supers you use depends on the audience. When doing spots to the senior audience, I like to use a lot of supers so that they can read along even if they are hearing impaired. When doing Medicare, diabetes products, catheters or other elderly oriented goods, I prefer to use more supers so that the message is reinforced in both video and audio.

    When doing other DRTV products, I pull back on the supers especially if it is a highly visual demo. The impact of a great demo should often be instantly obvious without a fly-in distracting the viewer.

    However, for before/after testimonials and other things that are not always as obvious, sometimes a good graphic can help enhance the impact of some less than obvious comparisons.

  3. This article is very helpful to me. I have brought many products to market but am new to DR. It's like learning another language. Thanks for sharing the information!