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An Actor's Eyes
Last updated 5/26/11

Getting Into Commercial Acting

Much of commercial acting may fall along the same lines of preparation that an ordinary acting career might, but there are some fine points to be aware of. For the candidate seeking work in commercials the head shot is a highly important part of the package. Following in importance are the resume, from which special skills and commercial training will be looked at, and a strong cover letter which should highlight your unique skills and accomplishments. There is a specific technique applied in commercial auditioning. Proper training will help you get comfortable with the procedure and give a good audition. Having commercial training with a good coach listed on your resume shows you are serious about learning and applying the craft.

Aspects of a commercial acting career that may differ from mainstream acting include:

The Commercial Type

You should have a realistic idea of what type you are commercially (age range, physical look, and personality traits). When viewing commercials, study the actors. Make note of the types of people and which products they are used for. What are their energies? What are they wearing? What hairstyles do they have? Which products use human? Where might you fit in? Could you be the "mom" or "dad"? A seasoned executive? A student? A construction worker?

In his book, Breaking Into Commercials, Tom Berland describes certain physical “looks” that are common in commercials:

1. Character. This is someone with extreme or pronounced facial features, likeable, or even funny looking. If you fit into the character category, a chipped tooth or a space between the teeth could add to or be natural for the character.
2. P&G (Procter & Gamble look). A generic, middle-American look with well-proportioned, middle-of-the-road, attractive features. Extremely beautiful people or character types do not fit this category. P&G types are healthy looking, bright, and happy.
3. Pretty or handsome (but not a model, not glamorous). This is someone who is natural and approachable.
4. Model type. Someone with above average looks extremely good looking or striking. Model types generally have high cheekbones, strong jawline, perfect teeth, excellent skin, and a well-proportioned, toned body. The camera seems to enhance their exceptional beauty.
5. Slightly off-beat/slightly quirky. Individuals who are specifically different from the average, middle-American look. Prototype: Barbara Streisand (pretty with a nose that is not perfect). Tom Hanks (good-looking with nose and mouth slightly off center).
6. Quirky/pretty and funny. Prototypes: Rosanna Arquette, Goldie Hawn, Cher, Meg Ryan.
7. Urban/city type. Someone with a stylish edge, with an intense, trendy look. Not outdoorsy looking.
8. Suburban type. Plainer, casual, relaxed, sporty, rugged, outdoorsy looking.
9. Ethnic. Caucasian, Afro-American, Asian, Latin/Hispanic, Indian, Native American, Jewish, European, etc.

And in his book Acting in Television Commercials for Fun and Profit, Squire Fridell categorized the commercial type this way:

The Housewife The Young Husband
The Young Mother The Father
The Girl Next Door The Guy Next Door
The Fast-Food Counter Girl The Fast Food Counter Guy
The Cosmetic Model The Cosmetic Model
The Ditzy Blonde The Lumberjack
The Wolf Whistle Bombshell The Handsome Man
The One Calorie Girl The Athlete
The Female Executive The Male Executive
The Granny The Granddad
The Spokeswoman The Spokesman

The Commercial Head Shot

The commercial head shot is an important marketing tool and it helps to know something about commercial technique before having a commercial photo session. Take a workshop from a professional to explore commercial techniques and how you could adapt to them. Watching commercials on television is still another way to learn. Essentially, your commercial head shot should reflect a happy, energetic, open personality, and so your headshot would need to reflect this. Your expression should be very alive, effervescent if not animated and reflecting very warm, friendly appeal.

Terms To Know

Comml. Abbreviation for “commercial.”

Conflicts. Being under contract for two conflicting products. This is prohibited for union commercials. An advertiser would never want one person on the air advertising both the company’s product and a competitor’s.

First Refusal. A request to hold an actor for a given day. It is not binding for either the producer or you. It is more of a sign of interest than an availability request, and it is not as good as a booking.

Flap. In animation, movement of the mouth. If the talking stops and the character’s mouth keeps moving, an actor will be called in to add either internally, at the beginning, or at the end of the line so that the mouth flaps match the rhythm of the speech.

National. A commercial airing everywhere in the United States.

Pay-per-airing. Monies paid to an actor each time a television commercial is shown.

Residuals. Also known as royalties, these are additional monies to actors (but not extras) for film, TV or commercial work airing on local television or international television stations.

For a full glossary listing click here

Commercial head shots are photographically well-illuminated and have an overall bright appearance, letting the happy, upbeat side of your personality shine through. Simple, clean-looking makeup and hairstyling as well as careful attention to wardrobe selection are important. Clothing and jewelry should not distract the viewer’s eye from moving directly to the face and eyes of the photo.

Commercial head shots especially need to emphasize an actor’s smile, and the upbeat, cheerful side of a personality. The commercial head shot needs to show you as a typical, happy consumer. Men should keep their hair trimmed to a reasonable length and keep facial hair to a minimum. Women should look attractive without striving to look glamorous. Teenagers and younger actors should fit in the current style of their generation. Mainstream appeal is essentially what you should strive for.

The Composite

One type of head shot that is popular in the commercial industry is the composite, which juxtaposes several different images of you together on one 8" x 10" spread to give casting directors a quick way to determine how you may look in different settings. Generally, composites are used to capture different expressions and ways of dressing, such as showing you in a athletic pose, a professional pose (lawyer, doctor, executive), a family-type pose, and a classy, more elegant pose in a tuxedo or evening gown. The main purpose of a composite is to show the range of characters and looks you are comfortable in portraying.

The average fee for a commercial photo session is about $300 to $500. The session will probably take three to four hours at four to six locations. The photographer will shoot six or so rolls of 36-exposure, 35 mm film, which he will have printed onto contact sheets. You then select about six pictures, and they will be blown up to 8" x 10" glossies. All this is included in the initial price. Your agent will then help you decide on the layout of your composite and select a print shop. Throughout the process of photographic reproduction the agent’s role should only be that as a guide, and/or reference, but should not be directly affiliated (or have a working relationship) with the photographer.

Comparing the Commercial Head Shot, Theatrical Head Shot, and Commercial Composite

An actor might have three different photographs with three different looks that he or she uses to get work. The commercial head shot is used to get work in commercials. Commercial head shots are well-illuminated and have an overall bright appearance, letting the happy, upbeat side of your personality come through. Simple makeup and hairstyling, and wardrobe selections consisting of open-necked collars and medium tones present the right ambiance for the commercial photograph. Theatrical head shots reflect a more serious demeanor, showing strong eye contact and dramatic attitudes. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe choices may be more dramatic. Deeper-toned back-drops may be used along with subtle to rich variations in the photography lighting. Actors use these shots to get parts in theatre, television, film, and soap operas. For work in industrial films or corporate videos, actors can use either their commercial or theatrical head shot. Commercial composites generally consist of three to four photographic prints, each of which shows a unique facet of one’s personality, a different energy, or a different character type. They are used for commercial print work, which consists of magazine ads, brochures, and catalogs.

The Resume

If you are just starting out, you will probably be relying mostly on your look, training credits, and special skills to create opportunities. After you have acquired a resume long on experience , your credits will be your best PR tool. It should not become to great of a concern if at first, you don’t seem to have much to put on your resume; there are ways to present your nascent career that will give your presentation a professional appearance while you are building your credits, and without being misleading about it.

When listing commercial experience on a resume geared toward Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago market, it is best to simply put “List Upon Request” next to that category. Listing a commercial could imply that you have a conflict (between competing products, for instance) which would eliminate you from any related casting opportunities. If you are pursuing work in a region where there are no union commercial opportunities, it is the trend to list commercials you have already done to show you have experience, or to list agencies and production companies you have worked with.

How you list industry-related experience on your resume depends on which market you came from. In Los Angeles, film and television credits are usually listed first. In New York, theater credits are mentioned first. If you live in a smaller, regional area, start with the strongest credits. When in doubt, list theater credits first. Theater provides a strong foundation for actors and is the purest form of acting experience.

After you have outlined your experience in the industry, it is time to list any industry-related training you have had. Begin with classes you have taken, scene study, improvisation, or cold-reading, and workshops. If the class or workshop was taught by a well-known coach, agent, or casting director, note that on your resume as well. If you have a degree in theatre arts, put it in your resume. Also, include any voice and dance training.

Commercial Agents

A commercial agent submits clients for TV commercials, music videos and, occasionally, industrial training films. Generally, commercial agents are easier to land than other agents. As part of their operation, commercial agents understand that this area of the entertainment industry is a numbers game, and so they will sign many actors and models to their agency of the same type and look. When a call goes out for a certain type, the agent will get as many appointments as needed to cover their clients casting needs. Commercial agencies can have between 200 to 400 clients, depending on how many agents are in the agency. Commercial agents customarily look for actors and models who are both versatile in talent and likeable in personality. And most commercial agents love to find new people for the industry, making it a great opportunity for newcomers. Commercial agents will almost always ask you to read, unless you have extensive credits and a demo reel. Make a list of all the commercials you have done, even if they were local ones in your town. List the advertising agency and the director as well. A commercial agency may have a relationship with that ad agency, and, therefore, will keep an eye out for future commercials, also known as “spots,” that you might be right for. Aside from your credits, provide your prospective commercial agent with a list of your industry contacts.

In a similar way to theatrical agents, if you are put under contract, you may have to sign both A.F.T.R.A. and SAG contracts for one year with three-year renewals. A.F.T.R.A. covers all commercials shot on tape and SAG covers all commercials shot on film. After you have signed, provide your agency with a stack of photos and resumes with the agencys’ logo on them. And be ready to respond to “rush calls,” in which case it would be good to have a pager or cell phone to be notified about.

How Commercials Can Lead to Television and Film Work

Commercials (much like extra work) can be an actor’s first opportunity for exposure in front of the cameras. Often enough, a “beautiful person” or some other unique type is needed in a film. A casting director or the film’s director will see an actor in a commercial and might trace him or her down to audition for the film. As the first experience of acting on-camera, commercial work can help actors learn to take direction, deliver copy on time, follow blocking instructions, and exercise expressions and emotions on film. Needless to say, their is also the vital aspect of networking and meeting with people involved in the entertainment industry to exchange information with.

The Industry and Voice-Overs

A voice-over is the voice commenting or narrating off camera, such as in a television commercial. The main union and guild covering voice-over artists, AFTRA, defines a voice-over performer as someone who reads copy and is not seen on-camera. Voice-overs on radio and television commercials are considered to be anything up to three minutes in length. Anything over three minutes is considered voice-over narration. On television, it is the voice you hear of someone not taking part in what you are seeing on the screen.

Voice-overs are also used extensively in these areas:

Be wise about spending your money on a professionally produced demo tape which is an eventual necessity. Some training will be needed through voice-over/animation classes due to the technical nature of the work. A produced demo tape can cost from $300 to $700 depending on if you have hired a producer/director to work with you, and you will have to pay the studio an hourly charge where you produce the tape.


Models who expand into television commercial work position themselves firmly inside the industry. An increasing number of models are taking acting classes to increase their chances of getting commercial work. As models become better prepared and well trained in commercial auditioning technique, they broaden their career and diversify their revenue sources. The residual income from commercial work can come in for years (depending on the contract and rights) after the actual work was done, carrying the model through slow times and/or adding a lucrative financial base from which she or he can expand in both careers.

Most commercial agencies now have separate departments or are affiliated with model agencies exclusively to represent and send out models for commercials. Many of these departments have expanded even further into representing their talent for theatrical (film and television) deals. Model agencies recognize the growing trend of models crossing over into other areas of the industry and are quick to give attention to this lucrative segment of their business.

Useful Books

An Actor’s Guide: Making It in New York City
by Glenn Alterman
288 pages; (February 2002)
Allworth Press; ISBN: 1581152132
Making Money in Voice-Overs: Winning Strategies to a Successful Career in TV, Commercials, Radio and Animation
by Terri Apple, Gary Owens
225 pages; (March 1999)
Lone Eagle Publishing Company; ISBN: 1580650112
Get That Cutie in Commercials, Television, and Films  Breaking Your Talented Child Into the Entertainment Industry: A Parents' Step-By-Step Beginners'
by Kandias Conda; Karen Ford
(December 2000)
Amber Books; ISBN 0965506452
Professional Acting in Television Commercials: Techniques, Exercises, Copy, and Storyboards
by Pat Dougan
215 pages; (April 1995)
Heinemann; ISBN: 0435086596
Acting in Television Commercials for Fun and Profit
by Squire Fridell, Barry Geller (Illustrator)
215 pages; (March 1995)
Crown Pub; ISBN: 0517884372
Getting the Part: Thirty-Three Professional Casting Directors Tell You How to Get Work in Theater, Films, Commercials, and TV
by Judith Searle
320 pages; (September 1995)
Limelight Editions; ISBN: 0879101946
Acting in Commercials: A Guide to Auditioning and Performing on Camera
by Joan See
192 pages; (May 1998)
Watson-Guptill Publications; ISBN: 0823088022
Auditioning and Acting for the Camera  Proven Techniques for Auditioning and Performing in Film, Episodic TV, Sitcoms, Soap Operas, Commercials
by John W. Shepard
(April 2004)
Smith & Kraus Pub Inc.; ISBN 1575252759
24-Carat Commercials for Kids
by Chambers Stevens
96 pages; (June 1999)
Sandcastle Publishing; ISBN: 1883995094
Acting Out: Your Personal Coach to a Money-Making Career in Television Commercials
by Stuart Stone; Dennis Bailey
133 pages; (August 2003)
Cricket Feet Publishing; ISBN 097230195X
You Can Work On-Camera!: Acting in Commercials and Corporate Films
by John Leslie Wolfe, Brenna McDonough
160 pages; (March 1999)
Heinemann; ISBN: 032500062X

Click the titles of the above books for their availability, or enter the title of a book not shown in the above listing in the search box below.


Search for magazines by entering the title or keywords in the search box below.


Relevant Associations & Organizations

American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)
East Coast Office:
260 Madison Avenue, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10016
Phone: 212-532-0800
West Coast Office:
5757 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA  90036
Phone: 213-634-8100
Email: aftra@aftra.com
American Society of Media Photographers, Inc.
150 North Second Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: 215-451-ASMP (2767)
Fax: 215-451-0880
A resource for community, culture, commerce and publications relating to publication photography. “Find a Photographer” database, is searchable by criteria including location and specialty.
Email: webmaster@asmp.org
Association of Talent Agents (ATA)
9255 Sunset Blvd.
Suite 930
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Phone: 310-274-0628
Fax: 310-274-5063
Trade association composed of approximately 100 agency companies engaged in the talent agency business. The membership includes agencies of all sizes representing clients in the motion picture industry, stage, television, radio (including commercials) and literary work.
Email:  agentassoc@aol.com
Casting Society of America
606 N. Larchmont Boulevard, Suite 4-B
Los Angeles, CA 90004 -1309
Phone: 323-463-1925
Fax: 323-463-5753
Email: castingsociety@earthlink.net or castingsociety@hotmail.com
Casting Society of America
2565 Broadway, Suite 185
New York, NY 10025
Phone: 212-868-1260, ext. 22
Email: castingsociety@earthlink.net or castingsociety@hotmail.com

Local  51- The Models Guild (TMG)
Office and Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC
265 West 14th Street,
6th Floor New York, NY 10011
Phone: 800-346-7348
“The International Union shall be devoted and dedicated to promoting, protecting and championing the legitimate struggles of professional, technical, office and clerical employees toward achieving economic well-being, their general welfare and rights as workers and citizens.”

National Association of Talent Representative
c/o The Gage Group
315 West 57th Street, #4H
New York, NY 10019  
Phone: 212-262-5696 or 212-541-5250
Fax: 212-956-7466  
Email: gageny@aol.com
Professional Photographers of America, Inc.
229 Peachtree Street NE, Suite 2200
Atlanta, GA 30303
Phone: 404-522-8600
Fax: 404 614-6400
A certifying agency for imaging professionals and the world’s largest not-for-profit association for professional photographers, with more than 14,000 members in 64 countries. PPA offers consumers free referrals to photographic professionals, as well as acting as a locator service for finding the owners of images.
Email: csc@ppa.com
For a full listing of helpful associations and organizations click here



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