Ordinary People

How agencies recruit real folks for ads

The story of the Indiana University student who lost 245 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches and graduated to become a professional spokesman has become the stuff of advertising lore: Jared Fogle’s roommate wrote about the offbeat weight-loss strategy in the university newspaper, wire services picked up the story, Subway’s Chris Carroll read the reports, and a marketing plan was born.

“We were putting people in ads who were overweight, saying, ‘If you ate at Subway, you wouldn’t be like this,’ ” says Carroll, director of marketing for the Subway Franchise Advertising Fund Trust. Just a week before the Jared stories started appearing, his team had decided the ads should instead show people who already lost weight.

Three years later, Subway ads have featured a succession of real people, and Fogle himself remains the ringleader. Crowds chant his name when he’s spotted, which happened recently at a Dave Matthews concert, and he’s stopped on the street for autographs. Although Subway’s $220 million account moved to Fallon last month, Jared won’t be going anywhere soon. “We like having him around,” says Carroll. (Details of the new campaign were to be revealed Friday at a franchisees conference.)

Real-people testimonials have cropped up regularly in ads since the 1970s, when Sanka and Folgers ads showed coffee drinkers caught by hidden cameras, but with the advent of reality TV, they’ve become ever more popular. Apple’s “switchers” rave about their Macs, less-than-perfect women laud Land’s End swimsuits, and families reveal how Fleet helped solve their financial problems.

While a cast of real people can give an ad an amateurish or hokey feel, it can also go a long way toward forging a connection with the consumer. The trick, of course, is finding the right kind of real people. Here’s how agencies tracked down the stars of four reality-themed campaigns.

Department of Defense/Mullen

To help find the five veterans who star in Mullen’s new campaign, the Wenham, Mass., agency brought in a production company and a cultural strategist to conduct the search—but happenstance also played a part.

Mullen senior information architect Barbara Friedsam was listening to a band called GrooveLily at SoNo Caffeine, a club in Cambridge, Mass., when its frontwoman mentioned her military experience. “I sometimes bring up the fact that Army training has also affected my life and music—in a good way—if it has relevance to a certain song,” says Valerie Vigoda, 36, who served in the Army ROTC/National Guard from 1984-95. Mullen conducted a phone and video interview a few months later and cast the singer/electric violinist.

Meanwhile, production company Picture Park in Boston was contacting veterans associations nationwide in a search for candidates who embodied the message that “the military is potentially a very good stepping stone to later successes as an adult,” says Maj. Joe Allegretti, client chief of advertising operations. For three months, the company videotaped more than 500 veterans discussing how the military had affected their civilian lives.

Cultural strategist Jonathan Field of Fieldworks in New York was hired to do additional legwork. One of the veterans he found, James Romero, a hat fitter in the Southwest, was a perfect fit. “The main criteria for being chosen was ‘uniqueness of story,’ ” says George Rogers, Mullen group account director. “There are lots of CEOs in this country who had some military experience—that was more expected.”

Less obscure than Romero was former Dallas Cowboys player Chad Hennings, who served in the Air Force Reserve. And somewhere in between is Vigoda, now trying to parlay the exposure, with appearances on CNN and Fox News to promote the campaign and her band’s new CD. She says that while some details were enhanced—the crew shot a van that looked more lived-in and messy than Vigoda’s—the story is all hers. “There’s no acting, there’s nothing that’s not honest about it,” she says.

To ensure accuracy, the final candidates underwent a background check by the military, a two-month process. (Most real people cast in ads are subject to a basic screening to verify their stories, that they don’t have a criminal record and that they haven’t appeared in other commercials—if they have been in more than one, the agency is fined by the Screen Actors Guild.) All of those cast were approved. As with other ads, the stars were paid union wages.

Targeted at adult influencers of youth, the print ads and commercials broke last month. “From a credibility perspective,” says Allegretti of the $15-20 million recruitment drive, “if you’re going to be touting any kind of virtues or attributes we believe the military is known for, we’re going to want to show people who have those attitudes, real people who have served.”


“I guess they think I’m kind of goofy,” says Dallas mom Toni Stroud on why Bernstein-Rein cast her for a Wal-Mart spot that broke in April. She’s also telegenic and quick with sound bites. “Since I’m a stay-at-home mom not making family money, I can save the family money,” she told the agency staffers who interviewed her and other full-time moms at her local Wal-Mart, almost exactly what she now tells TV viewers.

Stroud was there at the urging of an agency staffer, who’d come by her son’s elementary school several days before, scouting for Wal-Mart shoppers. The chain has used real people in its ads for nine years, and creatives at the Kansas City, Mo., shop have the process down to a science.

“It’s pretty simple: We spend an awful lot of time in Wal-Mart stores, in writer, art director and producer teams,” says Kirk Kirkpatrick, svp, executive creative director. “We’re looking for people not too shy, not too intimidated. Not everyone wants to be on television.” Casting usually takes two or three days. Then it’s a matter of readying participants for their on-camera interview; there are no scripts or storyboards.

“Often we have dinner or lunch with them before we do the filming,” says Kirkpatrick, who has worked on the account for seven years. “We meet the families and go out of our way to make [the shoot] feel like a conversation over a cup of coffee.” Only once has Kirkpatrick run into difficulties with a participant. A woman who was part of a couple that was selected “just froze and got very frightened” when she saw the camera, he says. In the end, she stood in the background while the husband spoke.

Kirkpatrick also finds his stars in less obvious places. Reading a magazine at his dentist’s office, he learned of a couple who took in the husband’s eight siblings when their parents died. “I thought, ‘Boy, these people are Wal-Mart shoppers,’ ” he says.

He looked them up in the phone book and reached the oldest brother. “I asked if they spent much time at Wal-Mart. He said, ‘Are you kidding? We spend all our time at Wal-Mart.” The Bell family starred in a holiday spot last year.

The real-people strategy works because “it fits the Wal-Mart brand personality,” says Randy Curtis, vp of creative and media at the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain. “There’s not a lot about hype or showbiz, it’s about real people and real needs.”

Well, almost real. Shooting for three days in Stroud’s house, the agency brought in home-office furniture for the dining room when the family’s own proved too restricting to shoot around, and spray-painted a corner of the yard green to turn winter into spring. “Here we are, everyday people, getting a little glimpse of what TV magic is all about,” says Stroud.

Novartis/Ruder Finn

“You can’t make this stuff up,” says Ruder Finn’s John Gruen of the amazing stories he heard after the New York agency began looking for users of Novartis drugs two years ago. “Rather than do really big, pompous corporate ads, we decided people connect with people stories.”

Ten print ads spotlight patients including a man who was going blind but recovered his sight enough to play golf again and a cancer patient who had to drop out of school, then returned and graduated when she went into remission. Some were found via letters they wrote to the client, in patient support groups or through Novartis’ Web site and newsletter.

Ruder Finn recruited the star of its latest ad, 23-year-old editor Erin Zammett, after seeing her column in Glamour, where she has chronicled her battle with leukemia. The Novartis drug Gleevec was approved weeks before her diagnosis, and she says it’s part of the reason she’s now in remission. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m happy to do it,” says Zammett (although enduring the seven-hour shoot, in Glamour’s lobby, gave her “a greater appreciation for what models go through”).

Making contact with candidates can be time-consuming—given patient confidentiality rules, the agency and client team may have to go through second or third channels. The people they choose then undergo a rigorous screening, mandated by Food and Drug Administration rules. “There were a few instances where the facts weren’t right or we couldn’t support something, and we just had to drop those people,” says Gruen, director of advertising at Ruder Finn.

Once the right people are in place, creating the ads is easy. “Basically we’re just sort of scribes,” Gruen explains. “We take down notes and turn in a pithier, shorter piece.” And in the process, there are a few Hallmark moments. “The people who work on these ads fall in love with the patients,” says Greg Baird, Novartis’ svp of communications. “It’s just very endearing to hear the stories and be part of being able to portray that person’s fight and victory.”

Subway/McCarthy Mambro Bertino

Traveling the country for Subway earlier this year, talking about his own successful diet, firefighter Clay Henry was approached by a pair of twins in Louisiana. Herman and Sherman Smith said they, too, had lost weight by eating Subway sandwiches. News got back to marketing director Carroll.

It was a no-brainer. “They were cute guys, they did this [diet] and got their life together,” he says. Plus, “the ability to try and appeal to a huge section of the African American consumer I found intriguing.”

In the midst of an agency review, Carroll bypassed incumbent Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York and handed the project to McCarthy Mambro Bertino in Boston. Agency staffers went to meet the Smiths, then wrote a script set at a family-reunion picnic. “They had a big family and were family oriented,” says CEO Joe McCarthy. The twins took to the camera, and Subway had a new pair of spokespeople.

Real people are a “breath of fresh air” at a time when “everything gets overhyped,” says Carroll. “If you genuinely made your life better, consumers think, ‘Good for this guy.’ They like seeing the common Joe succeed.”

No one knows that better than Fogle, now a veteran real person, for better or worse. “As soon as I leave my house, I’ve got to be willing to talk to people and share my story if they ask, no matter what kind of mood I’m in,” he says. “It blows me away how much people have taken to my story. They can just relate to it. That’s why it’s been so effective.”

When people discover Carroll does advertising for Subway, he says, “the first question is, ‘Did that guy really lose all that weight?’ That’s really cool. People like the genuine, true nature of what happened.”