Getting real about using real people in ads

Okay, here’s the thing. Putting real people in your advertising instead of actors is not the slam dunk you might think it is. It’s not easier. It’s certainly not always cheaper. And unless you do things right, it’s not even more believable or authentic. To coax a believable and moving testimonial out of an ordinary person takes a ton of preparation, hard work and craft. If that’s what your brand needs and wants, what follows will explain how it’s done.

But first, some background.

Before I learned how to create a believable testimonial, I created a few wooden ones. We all have. That’s the nature of the advertising business. I recall once recording an ad for a local restaurant where the founder had to read an incredibly funny script I wrote. He could not take direction. He had no sense of comedic timing. It was like being held at gunpoint and forced to watch this affable old guy rip up a Rembrandt with kiddy scissors. I’ve also seen confident, well compensated and highly accomplished business people turn into tongue-tied mumblers when a camera was turned on them. And we’ve all listened in horror as professional sports legends — men with the grace and prowess of gods — stumble through ad copy with all the coordination of a pee-wee soccer tryout.

For the sake of my own sanity, I had to find a better way. And then one day I hit on it. We were working on a community-based non-profit project with no budget, so the copywriter brought in a wonderful old woman from the community with a great voice. Unfortunately, when we put the script in front of her she turned into a robot with a great voice. It was painful. I got an idea.

“Let’s try something different,” I said as I gently slid the script out of her hand. “Have you ever been to church, ma’am?”

“Every Sunday.”

“In the church I grew up in, we used to have songs where one person sang something and the rest of the congregation repeated it exactly as the first person sang it. How about you?”

“Oh, yes. We sing like that. I am in the choir, in fact.”

“Great. We’re going to do something just like that.”

I instructed her to close her eyes and listen to how I read the script, one line at a time as if I were singing, matching my tone, volume, rhythm. She did so and in one take, after editing my voice out, we had a mini-masterpiece. That’s when I realized the first rule of real-people testimonials:

This is Charles. He was amazing. And real. He had one line and he nailed it.

No script.

Real people are not actors, and therefore have not had the training, the practice or the knowledge of how to perform a written script. You put a couple of type-written pages in front of them and they are lost. Or, even worse, some of them were in a play in high school once or twice, so they think they have a clue about how it “should” be done (a scary, albeit somewhat entertaining scenario at times). Take the script away and you actually have a chance of capturing their humanity. Just make sure that if you give them any lines they are short enough to remember without the aid of a script. Because, as I said, real people are not actors. (As an aside, if you’ve spent any amount of time around actors as I have, you will also note that actors are, for the most part, not real people.)

Use professional casting when possible.

One of my favorite producers, Brenda Maggio, has a saying, “We want real people for this spot, but not too real.” A professional casting company that specializes in finding real humans knows how to select people who feel like folks you might see on the street without being so “real” that you want to gouge out your own eyes rather than look at them. Also, a casting pro can give you choices. On a project I did for Keurig a few years back, we cast for real people over a 2–1/2 day period. We visited law firms, furniture showrooms, beauty parlors and anywhere else where they really loved their Keurig coffee machines. We talked to around 200 people to whittle down to five real-person radio spots. It was lot of work. But worth it.

Get them comfortable.

In order to overcome the jitters that come when a real person provides a testimonial, it helps to get them to tell their story a couple of times before you actually put them under the spotlight. Get them used to the idea of “performing.” After they have been cast, they know they are being paid, they know they are going to be in an ad, so then you have to show them the job they need to do. I like to explain to everyone exactly what the process is and how we will go about it, down to the most minute detail. And after doing that, I like to get them comfortable talking about their relationship to the brand. The best way to do this, I have found, is to be in a recording booth with them.

Record before you record.

In most cases, I like to do initial interviews and story exploration, together, face to face in a recording studio booth in front of some really good microphones. This gets the subject more comfortable being recorded. I usually let them know that we are just recording so we can get an intern to type up a transcript and that this recording will probably not go on air. In reality, sometimes these recordings do go on the air, albeit heavily edited. And there have been times when editing a final spot where we needed to go back to these original exploratory recordings to pull a word or phrase that we couldn’t get on set. More material is always better than less. Which leads me to my next tip.

Record a lot.

Generally speaking, I like to record around 30 minutes of conversation to produce a 30-second radio spot. By the time we do a final recording, we’ve already heard the subject’s story and the idea for the script has been fleshed out. I have a general idea of what I’m hoping to record. Before diving into asking the questions that will lead to the script, I like to warm up with some jokes and witty banter. This gets the person feeling loose and can also result in some laughter, giggles and verbal quirkiness that we can sometimes edit into the final spot.

Edit a lot.

It’s not uncommon using this method to get two or three spots worth of good material. I like to cut up a few versons and play them for other members of the team who are removed from a given project to see what’s playing best.

Liz told a great story in less than 15 seconds. With lasting results.

Animate rather than shoot.

For the State of Connecticut’s CTfastrak service, we wanted to put real bus rapid transit riders in our TV spots, but we needed them to fill up the spot with dialog. In this case, we created animated characters that looked like the real people. That way we could heavily edit their recorded dialog to sound like a cohesive narrative and match that edited recording to a cool animated film. An added bonus was that at press events those real people could appear standing next to a cardboard cut out of their animated character. A big win for both advertising and PR purposes.

Keep live action super simple.

If you have to show a real person talking to the audience, keep it to one line. You can fill in the rest with a voiceover announcer or action or music or type on screen. One line of spoken dialog is about all that you can ask an untrained person to deliver and still feel like a real person. Any more than that, and you might as well have asked the Tin Woodsman to be your spokesperson — they will stiffen up and you’ll find that before long, the assistant director on the shoot will be handing out ibuprofen to everyone on set for their massive overtime headaches.

Have them tell, not sell.

You may want your best customer to talk about the “12 essential vitamins and minerals, as well as 37 grams of certified vegan dietary fiber” in your product, but that’s just not how real people talk. Real people are far more in tune with the truth of your product rather than the facts. They are better at telling your audience how it makes them feel. They want to relay their experience. As soon as you put features and benefits into their mouths, credibility, humanity and willing suspension of disbelief go right out the window. Save that stuff for a voiceover or graphic.

Can you tell which is a real person and which is an actor? Fooled you. They’re both actors. Ryan, on the left has Cerebral Palsy and a one-man show off broadway.

Know when to hire an actor.

Some clients want to bring a real person into their spot to save money. As I have shown, with all of the prep and handholding that goes into creating a believable testimonial, there are usually no savings. On the other hand, a good actor comes in, hits his mark and leaves after signing the contract with very little effort expended by the production. Bing. Bang. Boom. Plus, there are times when the character depicting an actual customer has to do a lot of heavy lifting within a TV spot or radio commercial. This is no time for amateurs. Bring in the big guns. Cast and hire a professional actor. An actor, while technically not always a real customer of your brand (but she could be), has been trained over the course of years to portray the realities of life. A great actor can bring so much skill to a project that they can make your audience believe. This is the immutable paradox of TV and radio advertising: Actors are always better at being real people than real people are. Go figure.

Grant Sanders’ role is that of Founder + Strategic and Creative Lead at SAND on Nantucket Island.