Get Real

Forget the celebs. Marketers are using ordinary folks to give their ads a dose of realism

For years, few brands were associated with golf more than Buick—and no player was associated with golf more than Tiger Woods. The automaker reportedly paid Woods north of $50 million over eight years to brandish its logo and bring a younger edge to its products.

But in 2008—a full year before a National Enquirer exposé about his galloping infidelity would tarnish his image and make a crashed Escalade in the dark Florida night as synonymous with the name Tiger Woods as the Masters green blazer—General Motors dumped him. Back then, former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz remarked that Woods “did little to help sell cars.” And Buick didn’t just quit Woods—it started employing “real people,” as opposed to celebrities or actors, in its marketing campaigns.

“I don’t anticipate us going back and having a relationship with a celebrity like Tiger Woods again—I’m not sure anyone really believed that Tiger Woods drove a Buick,” says Craig Bierley, Buick’s director of advertising and promotions. “I think you start to push the limits of credibility. There are more effective ways of communicating with the consumer without using celebrities, with really great creative.”

Buick isn’t alone. Lately, marketers have fewer stars in their eyes. Only one in 10 ads now features a celebrity, down from a peak of 19 percent in 2004, according to Millward Brown, which has tracked the trend, mostly by way of TV spots, for the last dozen years.

Ann Green, Millward Brown’s senior partner for client solutions, says marketers are rethinking their relationships with high-profile figures in light of celebrity scandals and the weak economy. “Advertisers as a whole have to be very smart and very aggressive about how they spend every single dollar,” she says. “A bad phase in a celebrity’s life can damage a brand’s image and significantly erode the return they receive on their marketing investments.”

It’s no wonder, then, that we’re seeing more ads featuring everyday people, a time-tested strategy that gave us such iconic advertising moments as the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test, those Folgers crystals hidden-camera ads and, more recently, Dove’s celebrated “Real beauty” campaign. Of late, still more brands are turning to Average Joe instead of Angelina Jolie to hawk their products.

A few examples: For its “Drive one” campaign, Ford had actual customers give testimonials at mock press conferences—this, some time after Nutrisystem replaced Dan Marino and Marie Osmond with everyday folks as its spokespeople. In its campaign “Sea food differently,” Red Lobster put its own employees front and center, retiring its old spots featuring professional actors. Grey New York, which developed the Red Lobster effort, took a similar creative approach for Ally Bank and Febreze. “Brands are asking for more authentic communications,” says Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer of Grey New York. “They’re stepping back from the casting and saying instead of using actors or celebrities, let’s use real people.”

The result is creative that stands in stark, sometimes even gritty contrast to the typical super-slick TV spot.

Take the typical commercials for fabric and air fresheners, showing housewives in impossibly pristine, sweet-smelling suburban homes. The Febreze spots went against type, putting ordinary people in blindfolds and plunking them in stinky situations like dirty restaurants and filthy living rooms.

“That one is probably the most shocking of any of them,” Myhren says of the Febreze ads. “It was a brand that, for a long time, was as much about putting more classic actors in situations that were very unreal, and we were painting the perfect-smelling world … I think it really caught people’s attention.”

When real people are used in combination with a social message, the effect can be even more impactful. In 2004, Dove made a splash with “Real beauty,” which won plaudits for picturing young women who had bodies typical of the average American woman rather than the impossibly perfect waifs preferred by so many marketers. Brands such as Nike and Adidas have also sought to portray women’s bodies in realistic ways, but no campaign was quite as sensational or as groundbreaking as that of Dove, which brashly challenged society’s standards of beauty and encouraged women to embrace their bodies as is.

Celebrities may seem as unkillable as cockroaches, spawning endless reality television shows and still helping peddle the millions of magazines and tabloids—and yet, in this culture of overexposure, oversharing and a media that runs 24/7, they also threaten to be less special, less admired and less influential.

“Popular culture lets celebrities be transparent—and the more information you have, the less relevant they are,” explains John Colasanti, CEO of Solve, a Minneapolis agency that has put non-celebrities in campaigns for Harley-Davidson and Medifast. “If you talk to consumers, they understand celebrities have trainers and contracts and are motivated in different ways than consumers are.”

Research suggests that while celebrity endorsements can be successful given the right individual and context, it’s doubtful how effective they really are. A 2011 study by Ace Metrix of 2,600 TV ads found that on average, celebrity ads scored much lower than non-celebrity ads in terms of effectiveness. “People have told me, celebrities are surprised they can’t get hired,” says branding expert Eli Portnoy. “I know of a couple of fairly A-list celebrities who are looking for endorsement work and are just getting turned down.”

Anyone can see that advertisers haven’t abandoned celebrities altogether. And yet, even brands that are still starstruck are being more judicious—employing stricter morals clauses, for example. That desire for greater due diligence has given rise to new businesses such as fanDNA, a joint venture of PMK*BNC and Interpret that matches brands with celebrities based on their social media activity and consumers’ attitudes. “It’s not just, how many Twitter followers do they have? We’re getting into a lot of detail,” says Chris Robichaud, CEO of PMK*BNC.

Last year, Q Scores Co. saw growth of 10 percent to 15 percent in proprietary studies that match brands to personalities, says evp Henry Schafer. “That kind of research is much more prevalent and important than ever before,” Schafer says.

Those in the endorsement business insist there’s been no decline in their business. They say that as the economy has improved, brands are returning to celebrities, which they see as a safe harbor and a way to be heard through the marketing ruckus. As for those studies in which the public insists it isn’t swayed by celebrities, Robichaud of PMK*BNC contends that “subconsciously, they want to be like them—it’s how we all are wired.”

One point of agreement is that the definition of celebrity has become broader with the rise of reality stars. “There are velvet ropes to see Guy Fieri—they are the new celebrities,” says Portnoy. Adds David Reeder, vp of Los Angeles-based personality licensing firm GreenLight: “The endorsement areas have expanded. If you talk to talent agencies, their rosters have exploded.” The appeal of these emerging stars is that they’re cheaper than established names and can be very targeted.

The strategy isn’t always a winning one. When Sears introduced its Kardashian Kollection last year, the line failed to deliver the retailer a much-needed boost.

Grey’s Myhren tracks the anti-celebrity trend back to the Clinton sex scandal, which took overexposure of and disillusionment with the famous to a whole new level. It was helped along by the rise of digital media and the explosion in transparency and user-generated content it enabled.

“People are taking control,” Myhren says. “Everybody can film themselves now. That immediately opens you up for user-generated content. Whether it’s on YouTube or Facebook, we’re so used to seeing less professionally done movies. Because we’re used to seeing things that are less slick, it becomes more acceptable for advertisers to do that. Because of how companies are becoming more and more exposed because of the digital age, part of this trend is that we’re going to make our communications a little more real, a little more honest.”

Despite its ill-fated relationship with Tiger Woods and Bierley’s comments about the pitfalls of celebrity pitchmen, Buick still turns to celebrities now and again, among them Shaquille O’Neal. “We’re trying to build a relationship with people,” Bierley says. “People still spend money. But making more responsible choices is more of what’s happened in the past couple of years. Transparency is a much greater issue.”

While it may be on the upswing, the use of ordinary people in advertising has its limitations. The conceit doesn’t always work—especially when a script or acting is involved, Myhren points out. Then, there’s the instant-recognition factor celebrities will always bring to the table.

For better or for worse, celebrity endorsements are here to stay. “When you use celebrities, it’s always a little bit risky,” Schafer says. “But the rewards can be greater thanthe risks.”

Find out What Real People Think Of Ads Starring Real People here.