The Reality of Those 'Real People, Not Actors' Ads

Chevrolet’s marketing campaign is the culmination of a truthiness-in-advertising trend.

Cars on a large elevator as seen in a Chevrolet commercial

During commercial breaks at the Olympics viewing parties I’ve been at in the past week, one company’s ads have consistently sent the room into a round of existential questions. What is reality? Aren’t we all actors? Just how excited can a normal person get about J.D. Power awards?

In Chevrolet’s “Real People, Not Actors” ads, focus-groups participants react enthusiastically to information about automobiles. Sometimes, this is accomplished with a high-concept trick, like when the moderator pretended to destroy the group’s cell phones to show the importance of having a ride with wi-fi. At other times the pitch is more straightforward, like with the spots running frequently during the Olympics that emphasize the accolades Chevrolet has earned. “Thanks for blowing our minds,” one participant says, and it’s not clear whether she’s referring to Chevy’s award-winning dependability or the enormous elevator that’s been hoisting cars into the air in front of her.

The campaign, airing for nearly two years now, is the latest incarnation of the regular-folks-as-spokespeople trope that led to such advertising landmarks as the Pepsi Challenge and Dove’s “Real Beautiful” commercials. “Of late, still more brands are turning to Average Joe instead of Angelina Jolie to hawk their products,” wrote Lucia Moss in a 2012 AdWeek piece positing that ad agencies were increasingly casting real people to avoid situations like the one that unfolded when scandal marred the reputation of the famous product endorser (and golfer) Tiger Woods.

There are other reasons why ads like these may be flourishing: They follow reality television in showing a highly edited version of real life, they confirm the centrality of market research in corporate boardrooms, and they mimic social media’s way of shaping how people make choices.

“The number-one way people today find out about things is they look for people they trust,” Steve Majoros, Chevrolet’s director of marketing, told me. “If you needed help to replace your furnace or air conditioner or roof, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? You’re going to do a Facebook shoutout … We want to make people feel like, hey, this isn’t just us telling you. This is your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, people just like you.”

But the strategy does run the risk of irritating viewers. Adweek has praised the Chevy campaign as “really well done,” but it’s not hard to find complaints elsewhere online about the commercials and the larger trend they represent (sample Jalopnik headline: “‘Real People’ In Car Ads Make Me Hate Myself And Everybody Else”). Using ordinary folks to counter viewer skepticism towards advertising, it seems, can trigger even greater skepticism. Last year, a writer for The News Wheel noticed that some of Chevy’s focus-group members had, in fact, worked as actors before; a GM representative said that this was an unintentional result of recruiting in Los Angeles—you’re going to end up with a few people who have IMDB pages.

Majoros insists that the “real people” really are real (save the moderator, actor Potsch Boyd). While the company obviously edits footage to “tell the best story,” the participants don’t know what brand they’re interacting with when they show up, and the reactions on screen are genuine. Chevy’s recruiters do try and find folks who are “emotive” and “expressive,” as well as within the target demographic of the ad. “When you have stimuli that is inextricably linked to the product message, it elicits feedback that we don’t need to script or stage,” Majoros said.

The large car elevator in the company’s recent spots is one example of such “stimuli.” Majoros said that commercial was filmed in a hangar in Tustin, California, where they used a stage to obscure the cars queued up below participants’ feet, ready to be brought aloft. “Chevrolet has a series of brand values, and one of the brand values is authenticity,” he said. “So what you don’t see from Chevrolet is a lot of CGI wizbangery. We are about real things. But it has to be dramatic!”

When I gently brought up the notion that some people seem to find the ads smarmy, exactly the opposite of what an ad campaign based on real peoples’ opinions might be aiming for, Majoros pointed out that Chevy’s audiences’ testing has demonstrated measurable, positive effects from the ads. It’s fitting: Commercials about market research are going to also be the product of market research. “On the bell curve you have your haters and your lovers,” Majoros said. “It’s like gymnastic scoring. Throw out the high, throw out the low, and see how the masses are reacting.”