Over the past several years, companies are starting to feature, or attempting to feature more “real people” in their video-based advertisements. Rather than showcasing celebrities or actors, this form of media attempts to leverage the stories and personalities of everyday people as a way to connect with audiences. AdWeek published an article about this shift in 2012, noting how advertisers were featuring more real people. But wait, you might be thinking, I still see ads with actors and celebrities all the time, and they seem to be pretty effective. Why would advertisers want to shift towards featuring normal people instead?
There are a few reasons — one relates to the rise of “social realism,” which suggests that featuring celebrities and actors is no longer as influential when audiences are more interested in relateable social contexts. Celebrities in ads are now commonplace, and it can be hard to empathize with actors in fictional situations. However, it can be extremely compelling to see a “real person” in a situation that the viewer could imagine themselves in.
Related to social realism, there are several practical benefits to producing content with real people rather than actors or celebrities. Featuring a company’s employees or customers for example, removes the cost of hiring actors to play the parts of an advertisement. Additionally, this approach is likely to reduce the production costs associated with creating alternate realities via complex sets and special effects.
Featuring real people may also be effective at providing a more organic feel to the content. As consumers increasingly demand authenticity from advertisers, casting real people and telling real stories can be a powerful tool to connect with viewers. In an era where high definition cameras are a staple in everyone’s pocket, younger people have grown up to be comfortable with the fact their lives are increasingly documented online. General resistance to everyday people appearing on camera therefore, has lessened. For an organization, its employees or customers might become, or in some cases already be, more effective storytellers than trained actors. Regardless of the format of the advertisement (scripted vs. unscripted; documentary-style vs. standard narrative; etc.), real people can at times provide content just as compelling or more so than actors or sponsored celebrities.
The most common version of this advertising strategy is to simply replace the actors in standard, short-form commercials with real people who use the product. But companies have also started applying this approach to longer-form advertisement campaigns that use a documentary storytelling approach. The gear and clothing company YETI, for example, commissioned a series of documentary-style videos that showcase real “stories from the wild”. Perhaps what’s most compelling about these videos is the lack of product placement, and how the organic storytelling serves to reinforce the company’s lifestyle branding.
So in theory, it seems like featuring real people in advertisements is a great idea, but does it actually work? In fact, a growing body of research shows that using real people in advertisements can be extremely effective. Based on a study conducted in the U.K., 47.4% of people said that they preferred real people in ads, as opposed to 17.2% favoring celebrities, and just 7.1% preferring actors. This did not translate into situational advertising, as only 23.4% of people said they liked ads featuring “realistic” situations, while 61.5% favored “funny” situations. The study also yielded mixed results about how viewers felt toward the companies themselves who produced ads featuring real people. Specifically, 34.9% of respondents said that when companies portray their customers, they do so unrealistically. Over half of respondents (57.6%) said that they were more likely to connect with an ad that features real people, and a whopping 62.3% noted that companies who feature ordinary people in their ads are more likely to understand what their customers want.
It is important to note that featuring real people is not the right call for everything. The shoes that LeBron James sponsors for example, are going to carry a lot more sway than those my friend John vouches for in his Sunday pickup league. Furthermore, it can be extremely difficult for a company to execute a successful “real people” advertisement. If the content is underproduced, it may easily come off as seem amateurish or low quality. Think of your local car dealership with cringeworthy ads that come up when you watch the local news. On the other side of the spectrum, overproduced content with real people may come across as disingenuous, shallow, or even condescending. Chevy’s “Real People, Not Actors” campaign for example, was criticized for being so edited that the realness of the featured “real people” was essentially erased. One satirist even came out with a series of YouTube videos titled, “If ‘Real People’ Commercials Were Real Life,” which satirizes the commercials by mocking what a real “real person” might say in such a situation.
There is little doubt that content featuring real people and stories is becoming increasingly popular. For organizations and brands, the balancing act between showcasing what’s aspirational and what’s honest has become important terrain to navigate.