True Confessions: Real-People Ads Let It All Hang Out

NEW YORK A TV commercial for Commit Stop Smoking Lozenges, “Babies Aren’t Easy,” finds 36-year-old Lisa navigating Los Angeles traffic while dealing with her screaming baby in her car’s backseat. “Ava, come on, please, baby,” implores Lisa, a Burbank, Calif., resident. Now on day 30 of quitting cigarettes, the on-edge mother—who smoked a pack a day for 15 years and has allowed Commit to shoot her withdrawal—admits she’s having a hard time; on top of not smoking, the baby is really sick and she has so much to do.

The spot, one of 12 in “Reality quitting,” a campaign created by Arnold Worldwide in New York, is an example of a new trend emerging in the use of real people in advertising: the brand confessional. Other brands going the expose-yourself route include Secret, with its “Share your secret” campaign, and Kleenex, with “Let it out.”

“People will talk about most anything because of reality and talk shows like Dr. Phil and Oprah,” says Laura Slutsky, president of New York-based PeopleFinders, a real-people casting agency, as well as a real-people director. “Television has become a confessional.”

Advertising in which people bare their souls—and even break down—marks a significant evolution from the man-on-the-street interviews and typical testimonials real people have been delivering for decades. Slutsky, who has been in the real-people casting business since the mid-’70s, says nothing about real life was coming through in such ads of the ’70s and ’80s. “People were not talking about intimate feelings or life-changing issues such as smoking, drinking, pregnancy, breast cancer—not in those years,” she says.

One of the first contemporary brands to use real people in vulnerable moments was EPT, which in the early-’90s did a series of commercials for its pregnancy-testing kit out of JWT. Directed by Michael Apted, the spots featured couples that were struggling to conceive who discovered, on-camera, the results of their pregnancy tests. Viewers were then privy to each couple’s subsequent joy or heartbreak.

Lisa Bradner, senior research analyst at Forrester Research, Chicago, posits that the level of intimacy in real-people spots didn’t amp up until Dove’s “Campaign for real beauty” by Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago, which launched in 2004. While the everyday women featured in the Dove campaign don’t verbally make admissions, they allow themselves to be seen in vulnerable states of undress—wrinkles, cellulite and all. “Women are tired of seeing unattainable objects of beauty in advertising, and I think we’re seeing consumers push back,” Bradner says, explaining the appeal of the Dove campaign.

There are also other forces inspiring advertisers to venture into the confessional realm. “It’s coming from all different directions—culturally, technologically,” says John Staffen, CCO, managing partner of Arnold, citing influences ranging from reality TV to MySpace. He maintains that consumers are increasingly expecting the truth in all media, whether or not it’s pretty. “Everything is going towards being more and more authentic,” Staffen says, “including the use of real people in commercials.”

Sigrid Jakob, group planning director for JWT, which created Kleenex’s “Let it out” campaign (which consists of TV, outdoor, print and Web), also sees increased expectations among consumers for truth and openness due to reality TV and the Internet. These expectations, she adds, sparked a major change in the creative direction for Kleenex: While the brand once imparted the message that Kleenex helps one retain control, the new campaign is based on the premise that Kleenex allows one to let it all out.

In Kleenex’s TV spots, people from New York, San Francisco and London sit on a blue couch on a sidewalk and pour their hearts out to a total stranger. Directed by Brett Morgan of Los Angeles- and New York-based Anonymous Content, the people in these spots, fully aware they’re being filmed, are willing to open up about everything from how they met their significant others to the loss of a loved one. They let the tears and the laughter flow in the process, a box of Kleenex within reach.

In Secret’s recently wrapped “Share your secret” campaign for the brand’s 50th anniversary, from Leo Burnett in Chicago, participants also opened up. (The campaign also included outdoor, print and Web elements.) A highlight of the effort was a series of commercials that paired women up with other women in their lives—think two sisters, or a mother and daughter—to make personal revelations. In one spot, for example, a teenage girl comes clean to her mom about the fact that dad took her to get a tattoo; her mom, in turn, is shocked by the news. Another spot features two older women, one of whom is married to the other’s brother. The sister confesses that, way back when, she had to bribe her brother to take his future bride to the junior prom. The friend’s reaction to the behind-the-scenes matchmaking: pure embarrassment.

But does all this raw emotion benefit an advertiser? John Wojcik, brand manager of Commit, says their effort has been a “fantastic success” that has translated into sales, noting, “We launched ‘Reality quitting’ that first week in January and I’ve had sales numbers that I haven’t seen before.” (Wojcik would not reveal specific numbers.)

The Commit campaign, he adds, was actually inspired by the success of a reality-based campaign used to sell the NiQuitin anti-smoking patch and lozenge in the U.K. (GlaxoSmithKline is the parent company of both NiQuitin and Commit.) While the U.K. campaign had subjects filming themselves, Commit employed the services of award-winning documentary director Jessica Yu (Protagonist, In the Realms of the Unreal), who directs spots through Nonfiction Spots and Longform, based in Los Angeles.

But even if the spots are well-received, and regardless of how voyeuristic the viewers, clients venturing into confessional advertising don’t want to appear as though they’re taking advantage of the participants. At JWT, says Jakob, there was a debate over whether to air a Kleenex spot that has a woman tearfully recounting all she lost in Hurricane Katrina. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, this is too sad,’ ” Jakob says. “It’s an incredibly powerful story and she tells it very well, but we thought, ‘Has anybody ever used Hurricane Katrina in a commercial? Wouldn’t people think this is terribly exploitative?'”

JWT’s misgivings were seemingly unfounded. When the spots were shown to focus groups, JWT says it learned that people actually appreciated the woman’s honesty and didn’t see Kleenex as trying to take advantage of the tragedy. JWT ran the commercial and Jakob says it has yet to receive any complaints.

Yu notes that she and Leo Burnett were careful to ensure that the subjects in the Secret campaign didn’t embarrass themselves or appear to be exploited. In fact, according to Yu, it was determined that there were some instances in which they decided that the secret being sprung was best kept out of a public venue, despite the person’s willingness to share. “You have to have respect for the fact that you’re dealing with real people’s lives and that there’s a piece of whatever you’re shooting that they’re going to carry home,” Yu says.

These campaigns extend naturally online. For example, the smokers who have seen the Commit spots with Lisa crave more information, according to Wojcik, and they can find it at The Web site (which, together with the TV spots featuring Lisa, make up the campaign) offers Lisa’s story, Webisodes highlighting another quitter, Keith, and a quitting smoking progress tracker for anyone who’s giving up cigarettes, among other features. Wojcik maintains an online component is a must for any campaign focusing on real people.

The Secret campaign utilized a Web site (no longer live) where visitors could see the aftermath of the revelations made in the TV commercials (for example, the tattooed teenager shows her mom where she got her tattoo), and Kleenex currently provides an online forum where anyone can just let it out. One poster, for instance, writes about being depressed after being dumped, another expresses how hard it has been to change schools. Representatives for Commit and Kleenex report high traffic, indicating in their estimation major interest in the campaigns.

But are brand confessionals here to stay? While Bradner thinks the trend toward more honesty in advertising will grow in general, she views the confessionals as a trend that will only stay in vogue for a limited time. “It’s something everybody is experimenting with,” Bradner says, “but let’s face it, it will get tiring after everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”

But both Slutsky and Staffen believe we’re on the precipice of a major shift in how real people are used in advertising. Staffen acknowledges, though, that confessional marketing isn’t for everyone.”You’ve got to have a ballsy, gutsy client,” he says, “who’s willing to stand behind its product and believe in it to the point where they’re not afraid to show things, warts and all.”