Intended Use: They Turned My Commercial into an Ashtray

A Mother's Day Message from Casting Director Justin Radley, CCDA


Having two kids of my own, the approach of Mother’s Day has made me reflect on all of the crappy, handmade gifts I brought home from school every year for mom. Of course she did what a good mother is supposed to do and acted like the papier-mached-macramed-crayon-colored-dreamcatcher-ish-thingy-ma-crap was the best gift she had ever received. Her enthusiasm would only be equaled by the slightly less crappy thing my older sister made her. One gift in particular stands out in my mind as being extremely special. It was a hand-thrown ceramic bowl that I glazed red because that was (and still is) mom’s favorite color. I was pretty impressed with my first pottery effort and knew mom would be pleased, but it turned out my bowl had a slight design flaw. When my second grade teacher Mrs. Wise put it in the kiln the sides drooped considerably, and my work of art came out looking more like a warped Frisbee than a bowl for mom's Raisin Bran. 

Design flaws don't matter to moms on Mother's Day. Mom loved it. She unwrapped the wrinkled tissue paper and exclaimed, “Oh, Justin, this is the prettiest ashtray I've ever seen!" Ashtray, huh? She proceeded to pull out a Salem Menthol Ultra Light and soil the shiny red glaze with ashes. Hey, it was the 70s. Don't judge. I didn't. It's the prettiest ashtray she's ever seen. That was all that ran through my mind that Sunday morning. I didn't care much that mom had a different plan for my gift than its intended use. In fact, I didn't care about intended use at all... until about 25 years later... in an entirely different context. 

In commercials the term "intended use" refers to an ad agency's plan for running a commercial.  For example, an agency might say the intended use of a commercial is going to be "Cable only for one 13-week cycle" or "Regional markets in the South." The reason it’s the intended use and not actual use is that ad agencies often don’t have their media buys worked out when it's time to cast a commercial. They might not even have the media buy worked out until after the commercial is completed, so we take them at their word. It's a handshake. The ad agency gives us their best idea of how they think the client wants to run -- and can afford to run -- the commercial, and that’s the information we put in the breakdown when casting begins.

If a breakdown for a commercial says it's going to run "National Network and Internet," then agents usually submit their best people at scale (with some exceptions). They submit them at scale because "National Network" is another way of saying "Class A Usage," which is another way of saying the talent will be paid according to the highest residual base in the SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract -- which is another way of saying the actors stand a pretty good chance of making some decent money on the spot. The agents are shaking hands with the ad agency by submitting their best people without asking for a guarantee.

Design flaws definitely matter in commercials. Sometimes the commercial doesn't turn out the way the client expected. If they don't have their media buy in place, the client might change their plan and decide to run the commercial a different way. This is one way a spot that goes out as National Network and Internet on the breakdown ends up running only on the Internet. It's not that anyone was intentionally trying to be deceitful. The client simply changed their plan, which they have the right to do. Their intention at the time of casting was different than after seeing the finished spot. Talent agents find it incredibly frustrating when this happens, because it seems like the ol' bate-n-switch.  The client just took a national network commercial and changed it from a cereal bowl into an ashtray.

Aside from client whimsy, there are many different reasons a commercial might not run the way it was originally intended to run, and unfortunately, there's no way to predict what the client will do with it in the future. While a National Network run is tantalizing on a breakdown, I caution actors to remember that the only money they are guaranteed when they book the job is the 8-hour session fee (soon to be raised to $671.70). Any use fees are only paid when and IF it is used. You might think you're making a cereal bowl when you're really making an ashtray, so just kick back, light up a Salem Menthol Ultra Light, and look forward to booking the next one... I mean that figuratively, of course. Smoking's bad. Very very bad. Especially around kids. And it's not the 70s... So, moms, make sure to utilize those skills you learned in acting class and make your kids think those crappy gifts are the best things you've ever seen. Happy Mother's Day!