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Get Real

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

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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.

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