New and low-budget filmmakers often limit their ideas to things they can shoot cheaply and easily. So in all video contests, you often see the same gimmicks used over and over and over in very similar ways. Writers refer to to these types of common ideas as “tropes” And tropes are bad my friends…very bad. A trope is a thing that is played out. A trope is something that has been seen a thousand times before. Companies run commercial and video contests because they want fresh, off-the-wall ideas. They’re not going to get excited by something that almost anyone, anywhere could have come up with.
And that’s why it’s important to know your tropes. If you know them, you can avoid them. As a refresher, here’s a quick explanation from tvtropes.org of what a trope actually is:
Merriam-Webster gives a definition of “trope” as a “figure of speech.” In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.
Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it.
In this installment of Know Your Tropes, we’ll be looking at what may be the most common video contest trope of all; LEMONADE STANDS. Let’s start by taking a look at a few lemonade stand-themed contest videos I found on youtube:
Submitted to: Godaddy commercial contest:
Submitted to: Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest:
Submitted to: Careerbuilder’s Commercial contest:
Submitted to: Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality Video Contest:
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I swear, over the years I have probably seen at least 100 video contest entries about lemonade stands. Hell….I’ve probably seen 100 Crash the Super Bowl entries about lemonade stands! This particular trope has become common for a few, simple reasons. The biggest is that it’s just an easy gimmick to pull off. As I said, inexperienced filmmakers often work backwards. Instead of coming up with an idea and then figuring out what they need to make that idea work, they think of what they have at their disposal and then write a script that utilizes those resources. And a heck of a lot of people in this country have houses, driveways, card tables and kids they happen to think are adorable. And shooting inside is a hassle if you don’t have any lighting equipment so that means a lot of video contest entrants will be limited to filming outside.
Once a writer decides that their video will feature their kids and take place in their yard, it’s a pretty short leap to a story about lemonade stands. And since many video contests are about snack foods or beverages, scripts about lemonade stands pretty much write themselves. Here’s a hypothetical conversation that a lot of filmmakers will probably be having next month if Pepsi Max is part of the Crash the Super Bowl contest again this year:
Filmmaker: So for our Pepsi Max video, what if we had the kids set up a lemonade stand….
Filmmaker’s Buddy: Oh but instead of lemonade, they sell Pepsi Max!
Filmmaker: Right! But maybe first they try and sell lemonade but they don’t get any business…
Filmmaker’s Buddy: So they switch to Pepsi Max and make a fortune! That’s great! And I’ve got some plywood in the garage so I can make a an awesome Pepsi Max Stand.
Filmmaker: Superbowl 46, here we come!
But there is one other reason why lemonade stands appear in so many contest entries. You see, lemonade stands are a perfect and simple metaphor for capitalism. Kids that work hard and sell lemonade make money and kids who don’t work hard don’t make money. These days there are a ton of video contests with weird, right-wing agendas. So whenever you see a video contest about “stopping bailouts” or “the evils of socialism” you’re going to see a shit-load of videos about lemonade stands. Here’s a shit-load of examples of what I’m talking about:
Submitted to: Right.org’s Anti-Bailout Contest:
Submitted to: The Kudlow Creed video contest:
Submitted to: National Federation of Independent Small business video contest:
Submitted to: Atlas Shrugged Video Contest
Now I should acknowledge the fact that some of the lemonade stand videos I featured in this post are actually decent contest entries. But that’s because I made an effort to find videos that were entertaining and well-made. (If you want to see some not-so-great videos, just go to youtube and search “lemonade stand video contest entry.”) I guess it just goes to show you that a good filmmaker can turn any idea into something special. So while I advise you to avoid common video contest tropes, I wouldn’t say that concepts like “lemonade stands” should be totally off limits. Because when you turn a familiar trope on its head you can actually create something really surprising and fun. But….”playing with tropes” is another topic for another day.