Casting Joe Public as brand spokesman

Following in the footsteps of reality TV, brands are casting ‘ordinary’ people in their ads to make the product seem more customer-friendly. It may be the latest craze, but does it make commercial sense?

Television executives have a lot to answer for. First we had reality TV, making stars of nonentities such as Driving School’s Maureen, now we have search-for-a-star TV, the latest of which is the Ant and Dec-hosted Pop Idol. And this idea that the public are endeared by “ordinary” people has been picked up by advertisers.

Halifax is a big fan of the “ordinary person”-style ad, and last week re-emphasised its penchant for them by launching new ads that feature former branch manager and now minor celebrity Howard Brown. Bank of Scotland is following suit. But does this type of advertising create loveable underdogs whom people can relate to, or figures of fun who undermine the brand?

The biggest celebrity of our time to come out of advertising isn’t even real. “Monkey” hit TV screens last year in ads for ITV Digital and has since become a cult figure. A record featuring him is being planned, as is a TV series for ITV.

Mark Waites, one of the founders of Mother, Monkey’s creator, says the agency realised early on that the puppet would be a hit. “The most memorable ads are PR-able. That’s part and parcel of doing it. During rehearsals it started looking more and more likely that Monkey would be picked up by the public. We knew there would be spin-offs.”

Waites says the agency and ITV Digital were aware of how quickly celebrities such as Monkey can be killed off by over-exposure. Not wanting him to be another Flat Eric – of Levi’s fame – they have deliberately held back on selling him as a toy. The only way to get a toy Monkey is to subscribe to ITV Digital.

Waites says: “Perhaps the fact that Monkey can talk, allowing him more personality, has extended his life. There’s been a desire to treat him as a long-term vehicle.”

He adds that by making Monkey a celebrity he is also an ambassador for ITV Digital, opening up further opportunities for advertising. “Outside the ITV Digital ads, he will still represent the brand.”

Derek Robson, group business director on the Levi’s account at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says Levi’s was equally calculating with the Flat Eric campaign, but instead chose short-term saturation.

He says: “It put the brand on the map, but was only intended to run for two seasons. Another season would have been too much. The Flat Eric campaign isn’t as enduring as Nick Kamen’s ad [for Levi’s in 1985] because it didn’t have the resonance. Kamen defined a historic moment.”

According to Storm Model Management director Simon Chambers, the model-turned-celebrity trend was started by Kamen. Kamen, who had a brief stint as a celebrity, paved the way for others, notably Eva Herzigova, the Wonderbra girl, and Gossard girl Sophie Anderton, both of whom Chambers represents.

He says: “Kamen was so arresting that suddenly everyone wanted to know about him. But with Eva it was different. The client knew it was doing something groundbreaking. The media wants to know who will be the new girl in the ads, and advertisers go into it knowing that that is going to happen.”

Chambers believes that bringing in an unknown to appear in ads can help sell a product. “Consumers feel they can relate to the person, and therefore feel closer to the brand. Take lingerie as an example. You want consumers to aspire to look like the model in the ad, but not feel so intimidated that they don’t buy the underwear.”

The Halifax’s Howard Brown is a far from intimidating character, and Abbey National is latching on to this chummy form of advertising.

Abbey National is trying to find members of the public to appear in its ads, and starts the search this Saturday in Leeds. Abbey National retail marketing director Janet Connor denies the bank is emulating the Pop Idol culture, but says one of the judges will be a local DJ.

The plans are a genuine attempt by the bank to relate to its customers, she adds. “The objective isn’t to make stars but to show we understand our customers. If they become celebrities that’s fine, but it’s not our objective.”

Connor argues that finding stars from among the public will give the ads a down-to-earth feel which has been lost with the Alan Davies ads. “One of the reasons we are moving on is Alan is now so famous he may dwarf the message.”

Mustoe Merriman Levy chief executive Nick Mustoe says involving staff has another knock-on effect – it boosts morale. Both Halifax and Bank of Scotland found their ad stars through an internal campaign which whipped up excitement among starry-eyed staff. “You’re creating an ad which makes people who work for you feel good,” he says.

Performers’ union Equity has its own opinion about this approach to advertising. A spokesman says: “We’re not in favour of amateurs taking work [from actors]. It’s a trend which appears to be growing.”

But Mustoe believes that creating a celebrity through advertising can be endearing and beneficial to the brand because it’s normally unexpected. And he adds: “If you base your advertising around an [established] personality, the personality often gets more out of it than the brand.”

Anheuser-Busch pulled off a famous piece of casting in its True campaign for Budweiser, which featured the catchphrase “Whassup?!”. The cast were friends who created a short film, called True, which was picked up by DDB Worldwide. They have all found media work on the back of it, including former bouncer Scott Brooks, who has since become an actor.

“Anyone who says Anheuser-Busch tried to turn us into celebrities is lying,” says Paul Williams, who also appeared in the ads. “We all thought it was funny, but had no idea how big it would be.”

Whether contrived or spontaneous, the creation of celebrities through advertising is a growing trend and gives companies the opportunity to push the campaign into new and lucrative areas, such as merchandising.

But the key to these campaigns is knowing when to cut the campaign, and as a result the celebrity’s main oxygen supply. Unless the campaign is ended in its prime, it could end up looking like a bad joke – at the brand’s expense.

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