The rise of ‘social realism’ in advertising

Brands are increasingly using real people in their ads, as consumers reject flashy big-budget campaigns in times of austerity, but does this approach resonate with audiences?

Iceland’s ‘Power of Frozen’ campaign features real families

Gogglebox culture has come to advertising. Where brands once spent money on celebrities, special effects and fantasy scenarios, their ads are increasingly populated by real people filmed in real situations.

Brands such as TalkTalk, McCain, Iceland and Aviva are all tapping into this social realism trend in their creative, but what are the reasons behind it and is it hitting the mark with consumers?

VIDEO: How ‘real life’ ads impact on viewers’ emotions

Last month, TalkTalk announced it was moving away from “gimmicky advertising” with its new ‘This Stuff Matters’ campaign, which features a real family from Blackpool filmed in their home using fixed cameras as they go about their daily lives. According to managing director for consumer Tristia Harrison, the campaign is intended to magnify TalkTalk’s present focus on its customers and its efforts to speak to real people located “outside of the London media bubble”. TalkTalk has made big changes to its communications approach to restore trust after a high-profile hack last year.

The mundane, hyper-realistic tone of the TalkTalk ads echoes an existing campaign by frozen food brand McCain, which last year launched the first ad in its ongoing ‘Real Teatimes’ campaign. The ads also use unmanned cameras to show real families cooking with McCain chips in their kitchens. This fly-on-the-wall style is carried through to McCain’s sponsorship of ITV soap Emmerdale.

Iceland Food’s current ‘Power of Frozen’ campaign similarly features real people interacting with products in their homes, though these ads are slightly more stylised and include interviews with participating families. Running in tandem with the campaign, Iceland has been working with parenting social network Channel Mum to encourage users to try its food and produce videos on the topic of family food.

Ditching celebrities

Just as Iceland dropped previous celebrity endorsers such as Peter Andre in favour of using real people, insurer Aviva has stopped featuring comedian Paul Whitehouse in its campaigns as it turns to a more realistic style of advertising. The ‘Aviva Drive App Challenge’ campaign, for example, uses dashboard cameras to film real people in their cars as they try to improve their driving. Aviva has brought this low-key style to other campaigns for other products and services.

Aviva replaced comedian Paul Whitehouse in ads with real people taking the 'Aviva Drive App Challenge'
Aviva replaced comedian Paul Whitehouse in ads with real people taking the ‘Aviva Drive App Challenge’

So what is going on? Paul Bainsfair, director-general at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), attributes the growing use of real people in ads to the popularity of reality TV shows such as Gogglebox, First Dates and The Only Way is Essex, as well as to the prevalence of online influencers who have built their following on social media. Brands may be aiming to mimic this type of content in their efforts to appeal to consumers, he suggests.

“Advertising has always held up a mirror to society, so I agree that the rise of reality shows, online influencers and vloggers with lower production values and more natural settings have probably contributed to this trend,” says Bainsfair.

The Gogglebox factor aside, social realism in advertising may also reflect prevailing economic circumstances. Research published earlier this year by the Resolution Foundation claimed that  more than half of households across the working age population have seen falling or flat living standards since the early 2000s as a result of weak income growth and rising housing costs. Such factors, combined with the psychological impact of the 2008 recession, may have dampened the public’s appetite for flashy advertising that tempts consumers with aspirational – but often unattainable – lifestyle imagery.

Actually having something that is very quiet really stands out when you’re watching the telly on a Saturday evening

Sara Bennison, Nationwide

TalkTalk’s comments about appealing to people outside the London bubble also tally with analysis of the mood across the UK following the Brexit vote this summer. The shock result, which saw 17 million people vote to leave the European Union, has been described by commentators as a “peasants’ revolt” and “a howl of protest against the elites” from working class voters. Using real people in everyday, relatable situations could therefore be a way for brands to reach out to these apparently forgotten people.

Reconnecting with consumers

Aviva group brand director Jan Gooding said last month that while the Paul Whitehouse campaign had been effective at driving awareness and short-term sales, the company had needed to change tack in order to build a deeper connection with consumers and grow affinity towards the brand.

“When it came to a creative vehicle we recognised that the use of a big character in a sector that people found incredibly boring was now commonplace, [and that] we would need to escape this car insurance ghetto we found ourselves in and find a new approach to marketing that stood us apart from the competition and better reflected the scale of the business,” she said during the IAB Engage conference.

“We needed to stop joking about and better tune in with customers who were feeling bruised and mistrustful after the financial crisis.”

Similarly, Nationwide’s new toned-down approach to advertising – which features real people reciting original poetry – is designed to set the building society apart from competitors and rebuild the brand’s connection with consumers on an emotional level. The brand’s ‘Voices’ campaign launched in September and includes a woman talking about having her first baby and a man reciting a poem about buying his first home.

When it came to a creative vehicle we recognised that the use of a big character in a sector that people found incredibly boring was now commonplace

Jan Gooding, Aviva

The campaign supports a brand refresh by Nationwide aimed at reinforcing its community-based heritage and building society status in contrast to commercial banks. Chief marketing officer Sara Bennison explains that the more serious ads, which feature no backing music to accompany the poetry, are designed to tell stories that express the brand’s values in a deep and meaningful way.

“We have all got so used to big impact in TV ads – meaning big budget, big production, big music track and big celebrities – that actually having something that is very quiet really stands out when you’re watching the telly on a Saturday evening,” she says.

Faster and cheaper

Bennison notes that the Voices series is a quicker and more organic way of planning a campaign compared to more traditional TV advertising. Nationwide recruits poets by approaching societies for spoken word artists. It then receives video submissions that artists often film themselves and the brand chooses those it feels best fit with the campaign. Nationwide briefs out a theme such as ‘family’ or ‘independence’, but provides no script and does not edit the poems that it selects for the ads.

Nationwide's 'Voices' campaign sourced united spoken word poetry from the public.
Nationwide’s ‘Voices’ campaign sources spoken word poetry from the public

“You can see what you’re buying before you make the decision about which way you’re going to go – so it’s kind of back-to-front,” says Bennison. “It’s exciting at the same time because you never really know what you’re going to get back [from the poets].”

She claims that the campaign has so far received strong engagement from viewers, with Nationwide trending on Twitter when the campaign launched during The X Factor on Saturday 17 September. The ad was also the fifth most popular advert on YouTube for September, despite having run on television only three times. Bennison states that by focusing on a different person’s story in each advert, Nationwide can speak to different types of consumers throughout the life of the campaign, such as mothers or young people buying a home.

This allows it to target particular customer segments, rather than trying to reach everybody with a louder “big impact” campaign that expresses a single message. Filming real people is a quick and inexpensive way of making this content, allowing Nationwide to continually bring new stories to its TV campaign.

The brand has already launched six ads in the Voices series and is planning to roll out further ads through into next year. The series also translates easily to social media given the personal, realistic nature of the content.

“The broader question for the industry here is how relevant today is a model that is based on making one really expensive TV ad a year, where you have to research it to death because it’s really expensive, and you run it for about a year so everyone sees the same thing?” asks Bennison. “That worked when there was one commercial TV channel, but [with our approach now] we are able to produce content that can be very closely targeted to different audiences in an economic fashion.”

Does ‘social realism’ work?

To better understand the emotional effect that social realism in advertising can generate, Marketing Week conducted an experiment with ‘neuromarketing’ technology company Sensum. Our test comparing adverts featuring real people in real situations against those with celebrities or special effects suggests that context is key and whether a campaign is effective will depend on an ad’s content and execution. TalkTalk’s new creative approach registered more emotional engagement than its predecessor while Aviva’s provoked less (see video: How ‘real life’ ads impact on viewers’ emotions).

Iceland Food’s joint managing director Nick Canning is confident in the success of the brand’s Power of Frozen campaign, stating that it is “one of the most important and effective campaigns we have run in the past five or six years”. He explains that using celebrities such as Peter Andre is “good at giving you instant fame and awareness”, but that using real people has been a better means of “getting across complex messages” about the quality of the retailer’s food.

“People trust the views of their peer group and groups that they choose to be a part of – whether that’s on Facebook or at their local wine club,” he says. “We wanted to tap into that.”

Iceland filmed real families to focus on a quality message.
Iceland filmed real families to focus on a quality message

However, for all the people that are appreciative of down-to-earth advertising, there are those who feel cynical or patronised when brands try to speak to them using real people. Canning is philosophical about this issue, noting that “you can’t please everyone all the time” and that the approach and execution will vary from brand to brand.

“We have heard comments like ‘don’t try to represent me or my family by showing me another family’ – and we understand that,” he says. “We are just trying to be as representative as possible without saying ‘we think we’re all like this’. We want people to hear what other people are saying and then it’s up to them – we just believe it’s better coming out of unscripted, real people’s mouths as opposed to us trying to tell you what we think.”

Continuing to innovate

Canning does not believe that social realism is replacing other styles of advertising for all brands, citing Tesco’s decision to hire actors Ben Miller and Ruth Jones to front its current campaign as proof. Nor does he think that brands that opt for the social realism route should neglect innovation in their own advertising.

“It’s about making sure we keep it current and relevant,” he adds. “The challenge for us is less about the mode in which we film and more about how we can keep surprising people with the Iceland message. We have to make that message deeper and more relevant and move it on.”

This view is shared by Bennison at Nationwide, who also argues that consumers will continue to expect big budget advertising and escapism from certain brands. Indeed, any marketer considering the social realism approach must frame it within their brand’s wider strategy and consider whether it will resonate with their target consumers.

“I don’t want my Chanel perfume to be advertised by a bloke from Leeds on a doorstep,” jokes Bennison. “So there’s certainly an element of horses for courses with this.”

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