Creative Feature: Getting Real

“Give it up for James Dorsey!” A packed nightclub in Boston goes wild. In the DJ booth above the crowd, Dorsey gives a regal wave.

Dorsey is not, as it may seem, a local celebrity. He’s a 28-year-old insurance salesman chosen from about 5,000 non-actors who auditioned to be one of three Miller Lite “spokesdrinkers” for its “Lens” campaign. Schupp Company in St. Louis is chronicling Dorsey’s night out with buddies, and in the course of two spots, he will shoot pool, dine out, party at two clubs—and drink Miller Lite.

While reality-themed commercials have been around for as long as Ed McMahon has been ringing doorbells with oversize Publisher’s Clearinghouse checks in hand, reality programming has inspired a wave of real people and unscripted scenarios in advertising. Marketers’ takes on “reality” include comedian Adam Carolla’s improvised scenarios for Burger King, real consumers singing Apple’s praises for “Switchers,” real families touting Wal-Mart and Army spots documenting basic training.

“All these reality shows actually touch a chord in people,” says Pam Maythenyi, president of the Source Maythenyi, which tracks ads. “The audience likes them. They’ve gotten used to seeing real people.”

But can the concept translate to a commercial? For one, it’s a rare breed of client willing to forgo total control and allow for an element of chance.

“The client has to buy the idea un scripted,” says Karen Costello, associate creative director at Deutsch/LA, which introduced Burger King’s value menu with the Carolla spots. “We all had to back off and let things happen. It’s risk taking.”

“You can’t say, ‘Make sure they’re holding the product right,’ or ‘Let’s reshoot that part,’ ” says Schupp account supervisor Dena Self.

Notes Schupp cd Jim Mayfield: “You’re shooting on the fly a lot more. You don’t know what the story is going to be until you finish.” In the end, he says, Dorsey proved an engaging subject, and the bar patrons interacted well with the camera crews.

But there’s little control over details. For example, says Ron Acosta, Miller Lite communications manager, “you wish everybody at the bar was drinking the brand.”

The spots, which broke in November, are just one component of Miller Lite’s campaign, however. The buzz generated by the nationwide spokesdrinker auditions was also key. “The idea was promotional in nature, coming more out of an on-premise programming area, which happened to have a TV tie-in,” Acosta says.

For Burger King, the reality concept “felt right for that client, that project,” Costello says. “It’s not a technique to do for just anything.”

In the $50 million campaign, which broke in September, Carolla jokes with passers-by via a speaker hidden in an oversize value menu set up in various public places.

“Reality TV is Carolla’s specialty,” says Costello of The Man Show star. “You just have to let him go, let him be funny and respond to people.”

“Recall and awareness were very strong,” a BK representative says of the campaign. “The advertising broke through.” In focus groups, Costello says, the reality concept connected most with the young males in Burger King’s target demo, but the humor also appealed to a wider audience.

With “Lens,” Miller Lite is targeting men and women 21-27, a generation that has grown up with The Real World and its descendants, notes Self.

For the Army, the reality ap proach was a way to address what it saw as misperceptions about basic training, says Leo Burnett account supervisor Ahmad Islam: “There’s no better way to do that than to remove the veil, to look under the curtain.”

A crew followed a group in basic training for almost three months. The resulting series of 24 ads ran for about a year, through last spring, as part of the “Army of One” campaign. Un used footage was later turned into a reality series for the History Channel. While recent Army ads step back from the reality theme, it will reappear in the next few months, Islam says.

The client was happy—the Army exceeded its 2001 recruitment goal—and at least one creative was just as pleased. “I had more fun doing this than any commercial I’ve ever done,” says producer and director Sam Ciaramitaro. “Because of the freedom – It was a challenge.”