Does using 'real people' work in ads?

Having (thankfully) exhausted the use of Stephen Fry as a brand spokesman, adland seems to have discovered a new favourite spokesperson for ads - the "real customer".

Of course, beauty and fashion brands looking to target women have been doing this for some time – notably Dove, with its "real women" campaign through Ogilvy & Mather, while Debenhams has used pictures of models who have not been airbrushed in its marketing.

Now, brands in other sectors are using real people or real customers in ads, with varying degrees of success.

For Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, which wanted to demonstrate its customer-centric brand promise, the use of a real VW Transporter owner in an ad by Adam & Eve/DDB made sense.

But one of the most high profile of these ads, currently airing, is a more emotional affair – Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s "thank you" spot for Barclays, which features football fans on their way to a game including the pensioner Billy Ingham, who has supported Everton for more than 70 years.

So what are the advantages of using real people in marketing communications?

Creative: Dave Buonaguidi, chief creative officer, Karmarama

"I’ve used real people, actors, real people who thought they were actors, and actors who were not real people at all.

"But, ultimately, ‘real or not real’ depends on the job, the casting and the vision and skill of the director.

"These days, lots of brands use real people in their ads, it’s all very familiar.

"The challenge is to avoid doing something that is in vogue and create something interesting and original.

"In the Barclays ad, the director Benito Montorio uses real people in a unique way. He gets quirky-looking real people who don’t act, and then skilfully directs great performances from them, creating something more memorable and entertaining."

Client: Mark Hopkins, head of marketing, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

"Using real-life customers in ad campaigns brings with it a host of benefits, as long as it is done in the right way.

"A genuine approach to your campaign creative will really bring your brand proposition to life, encouraging engagement as a result.

"Every business benefits from having a human face, and who better to fulfil this role than the people who actually use your products.

"This type of approach is also a great way of generating talkability – it’s human nature to be interested in other people, their stories and experiences.

"Using real-life customers gives you the chance to offer your audience an authentic taste of what you and your brand has to offer."

Suit: Tom Ewart, founding partner, The Corner

"Mainly pros, for me. I like Joe Bloggs, but I’d be wary of asking him to recite the life story of Johnnie Walker to camera, in one take, while walking down a mountain.

"Best leave that to an expert like Robert Carlyle (although I imagine he would argue he was a real person once too).

"But if you’re doing an ad for a bank, celebrating real football fans, there’s no place for actors.

"You have to use 86-year-old Billy Ingham. And seeing him on the pitch at Everton the other week was nice.

"We recently shot a film for Adidas with Chelsea’s superstars. Funnily enough, once you cut through the circus that surrounds them, it turns out they are real people too."

Planner: Lisa Bowcott, planning director, Havas Worldwide London

"There is no denying that using ‘real’ people in ads can be a great way of harnessing real, heartfelt emotion. A message that expresses real emotional conviction can be very persuasive.

"It transforms a simple message into a belief that can inspire whole communities or organisations. The trouble with putting real people in ads is that it can be used as a way of papering over strategic or creative cracks.

"Using real people can be a substitute for a good creative idea, an attempt to overstate service credentials or a way to prop up a brand message that is not compelling. The motivation for using real people gives a good indication of whether it is a good idea or not."