Monkey and Al, the Nescafe Gold Blend couple, Aleksandr Orlov the meerkat and the Milkybar Kid – there are plenty of fictitious characters in advertising that are now so iconic they’ve earned themselves a spot in Britain’s pop culture hall of fame. The most successful have taken us on great journeys and are perfect examples of adverts that tell gripping stories.
Take Tony and Sharon, stars of the (now wonderfully nostalgic and corny) Gold Blend Couple campaign. From 1987 to 1993, the country was engrossed with the ‘will they, won’t they?’ series of ads, with more than 30 million viewers tuning in to see the pair share their first kiss in 1989.
These soap opera style ad campaigns are becoming a rarity (mainly because audiences are no longer limited to only 4 terrestrial channels to get their entertainment fix), with many brands now opting to take a more authentic approach to advertising.
This ‘social realism’ take is nothing new - back in 2004, Dove launched the game-changing Real Beauty campaign, featuring women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages to redefine the meaning of beauty. Four years before that, we all became hooked on watching normal people (take that with a pinch of salt) living together in the Big Brother house. And for the past four years, we’ve even sat in front of our TV’s watching others watch their own TV’s in Gogglebox (who knew that two best friends from Hull sitting in a caravan and having a natter about what’s on the telly would be so entertaining?).
But in the past couple of years, there’s definitely been a surge in the number of ads using real people. In Sainsbury’s latest campaign, ‘Food Dancing’, we saw real people dancing in their real kitchens whilst cooking real food. Not a script or camera man in sight. In fact only amateur filming equipment was used – GoPro’s and iPhone cameras.
TalkTalk recently documented the life of a real family in their Blackpool home, using 16 unmanned cameras to capture authentic moments over a 2 week period. In the ‘This Stuff Matters’ campaign, a series of 10 ads show how technology and connectivity influences their lives every day, such as the daughter receiving a text from a boy or Auntie Julie being taught how to use a tablet.
So why are big brands turning to Joe Bloggs and giving them their 15 minutes of fame? A simple answer is that people connect more with ‘people like me’ – it’s easier to see yourself using a product or a service when you see people you can relate to using it as well. When done right, it drives a deeper emotional connection – like when we watch Gogglebox and see people like us react, talk and joke in the same way that we do to our favourite shows (such as jubilant celebrations and feeling like a genius after getting just one question right on University Challenge).
So surely, instead of a fictional character or a paid for celeb, there’s no better brand advocate than a real person?
Back in 2015, we partnered with McCain for their Nation’s Teatime campaign, where they set out to create a TV ad using real families, filming their own, totally real teatime moments...aired later on in the same evening. And since 2015, we’ve been championing Modal Britain (the people there are ‘most of’ in society), the mass-market who are crucial for scaling communications and achieving brand growth. So, as we talk to these mass-market families everyday across our titles in print and online, we were in the perfect position to raise awareness and recruit them to be the stars of McCain’s ad.
We’re also taking on this approach in the planning stages of campaigns with our very own Gogglebox style cast – the Modal Mouths. A unique bunch of honest talking, no nonsense Modal Brits telling us their candid opinions on anything we throw at them, from what they love about their local area to the Brexit debate and even their own funeral plans. For a planner, they’re invaluable – too often do we get bogged down with reams of data and endless spreadsheets, which whilst of course useful, can lack a human touch. Whilst a small number of talking heads can’t claim to be representative of overall UK opinion, we can use them to get a feel for how right our thinking is, or if we need to rethink completely. And like TalkTalk using a family from Blackpool, we’re hearing from those outside of the London media bubble.
Of course this approach is not radical or ground-breaking – it’s painfully simple. However, as we’re increasingly chained to our desks and working to tight deadlines, it can be tempting to tap in to those reams of data and endless spreadsheets that are just a click away. But who says ‘data’ has to mean ‘numbers’?
So, whilst there is definitely a place in advertising for escapism and great, fictitious tales, there’s also a place for normality – everyday people given a platform to have their voices heard, from the planning process right through to the creative executions. Although, I can’t help but wonder what the Gold Blend couple would be getting up to in 2017...
Jenny Sturrock, Invention Planner at Trinity Mirror Solutions