Reality advertising: how to successfully cast the public in ads

FCB Inferno has had great success with advertising that has featured real people and true stories. We talk to two of its creative directors about the way that agencies and clients can get the best out of working with the public.

This Girl Can ad campaign

Trends come and go in advertising, but a recent one that is proving to endure is the use of genuine members of the public to sell brands’ wares. Whereas in the past, the ‘everyday bloke’ in an ad would always have been played by an actor, performing carefully scripted lines, agencies and clients are now increasingly turning to real people to impart a brand’s message.

There is an obvious precedent for this. “Real people have become much more part of day-to-day entertainment, and inevitably there’s that cross-pollination that happens between advertising and popular culture like TV,” says Alastair Mills, creative director at FCB Inferno, the agency responsible for the phenomenally successful Sport England campaign This Girl Can, as well as other work featuring real people including ads for NPower, Barnardo’s, and the government’s youth apprenticeship scheme.

“For that reason, it’s not surprising that real world stuff and the observational documentary style starts to bleed into advertising as well.”

This Girl Can advertising
Above and top: Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign

But there is a significant difference between reality TV and reality advertising. Whereas the former often thrives on drama, shock and controversy, however contrived, advertising always has a product or a concept to sell. This requires its participants to stay on brief, yet still appear natural (brands pretending to present real life when they are in fact using actors do so at their peril – they will likely be found out and the public will not be impressed).

“One thing I’ve found over our years of working with real people is by and large clients would rather not do it,” says Greg Mullen, also a creative director at FCB Inferno. “Clients get very nervous about real people because they’re not actors and actresses, there’s not a script. There’s not this traditional protocol that most advertising campaigns follow, that they’re really used to, and their bosses’ bosses are really used to.”

It also requires a client that is willing to relinquish some control. “It takes quite a brave client to not have a script, not have a traditional advertising director with a storyboard and a shot list. The pre-production meetings are completely different,” continues Mullen.

The clients, and also the creatives, are unlikely to be allowed on the shoot either. “Because to form the relationship with the individual, you need the director to be as close as possible and spend as much time with that person, otherwise you’re not going to get the greatest results,” says Mullen. “That for a client is a big ask.”

Get In Go Far apprenticeship scheme
Get In Go Far, an ad campaign for the government’s youth apprenticeship scheme

So why would they do it? Well, get the casting and stories right, and ads featuring the public can have a real impact, on a very human level. This Girl Can was phenomenally popular, largely because it presented real women exercising, sweat, wobbly bits and all. Dove may have set the precedent for using ‘real women’ in its ads years before but here the participants seemed truly genuine. In an arena where most sports commercials feature model-like actors, it was an enormous breath of fresh air, and very relatable.

Similarly, FCB Inferno’s apprenticeship ads appeal not particularly for any creative ingenuity on the part of the agency, but simply because they feature compelling figures who are inspirational yet firmly from the real world.

The agency has worked with a number of different production companies to cast and direct the real world ads it has made, though Mullen says that TV production companies that specialise in documentaries or reality TV, with their particular knowledge and contacts, often prove the most successful route. “The ones we keep going back to are TV production companies, people who are used to doing real people drama and documentaries…. Any good campaign tends to come from the back of great casting and a great team of documentary filmmakers.”

Barnardo's Believe in Me ad
Barnardo's Believe
Barnardo’s Believe In Me campaign featured non-actors, performing their real life skills

As with reality TV, a certain amount of vetting of participants has to take place, particularly on social media, to ensure there is nothing in their past that might reflect badly on the client if it were to emerge. “That’s a very real problem with casting now,” says Mills. “In advertising, much more so than in television programmes, the people are representing the brand. So there’s a certain amount of trawling to be done. That’s not invading their privacy at all, it’s literally a look that you have to do through their social channels and just make sure there’s no skeletons in the closet.”

Likewise, the agency has a duty of care to make sure that anyone appearing in the ads is fully aware of what they have signed up for. “They’re doing something for the brand, and they are putting themselves out there,” says Mills. “It’s very important you give them the support, so they know exactly what’s coming out, they know where it’s going, there are no surprises for them.”

“There can be a propensity for unfortunate negative feedback through social,” continues Mullen. “Because of jealousy and so forth. The agency and the production companies will definitely talk to the individuals, talk about all the pitfalls – and the celebrations – that come with being in a campaign and how to handle it.”

Npower ad
Npower ad
FCB Inferno’s new campaign for Npower features members of the public (and their dogs) showing off their individual ‘super powers’

Despite all these potential complications, both Mullen and Mills report that, in the vast majority of cases, having real people in ads is a positive experience for all involved; particularly the brands, which will usually come out appearing more human and down-to-earth, extremely covetable traits these days.

“As a creative I think you get so much out of doing real people work,” says Mullen. “It’s so much more challenging, however it’s so much more rewarding as well. It feels very new and very fresh every time you do it.”

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