Television viewers continue to demonstrate an insatiable appetite for reality TV, with shows like “Survivor” and “Project Runway” running for a dozen seasons or more and new shows cropping up every season. One source estimates the number of reality programs went from 4 in 2,000 to about 320 in 2012. This season’s premiere of A&E’s reality show “Duck Dynasty” drew over 11.8 million viewers, making it the number one nonfiction series telecast in cable history.
With these kinds of numbers, it was only a matter of time before brand advertisers got into the reality game too. Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” Heineken’s “Departure Roulette,” Vitaminwater’s “Make Boring Brilliant” and many other successful advertising campaigns of the past year have taken a page from reality television and tapped everyday people instead of paid actors to star in their content.
From staging surprising pranks to springing spontaneous travel experiences on unsuspecting customers, brands are realizing that unscripted events often conjure a hilarious and human effect that is effective in creating an emotional connection with audiences.
Here are three reasons why “man on the street” campaigns have become a popular way to generate entertaining video content.
1. It could be you.
If great advertising is about creating an emotional connection with your audience, what better way to get the audience to empathize than by allowing them to imagine themselves on the screen? Candid, unscripted content with people off the street will always be more relatable than a celebrity touting the value of a product.
Coca-Cola used this approach to great effect in its “Smile Back” campaign, sending its team all over the world, from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to Pakistan and more, to simply smile at strangers and see who would smile back.
2. It doesn’t feel like an ad.
According to S. Shyam Sundar, a professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University Park, reality TV is “much more seductive [than other types of programming] because it seems much more real, much less orchestrated.”
The same holds true for reality advertising. Viewers hate to feel like they are consuming propaganda or being told how to think. Content with everyday people interacting with products heeds the ultimate storytelling adage: show, don’t tell.
When advertising feels like content or even like an experience, people are also more likely to share it across social platforms, because it actually adds value to their networks. It’s fun. It’s entertainment.
Take Wieden+Kennedy’s “Departure Roulette” campaign for Heineken, in which passengers at JFK Airport were offered the chance to change their travel plans at the last minute and go somewhere a lot more exciting: the engaging video capturing this social stunt in action has been viewed over 2.5 million times.
3. It personifies the brand and the target.
In Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” developed by Ogilvy & Mather, a FBI sketch artist draws women two ways: first by listening to the women describe themselves and then by listening to a stranger describe them. What’s notable is that there is not a single mention of Dove or Dove products. However, after viewing the content, the viewer has a sense of what a Dove consumer looks like and believes in.
These reality-based ads are stripped down of high-tech graphics or animations—they capture human interactions in a very accessible manner. The everyday people in the ads are a proxy for the everyday consumers of products. By not using paid actors in their content, brands are making the everyday consumer the hero.
The reality TV model is now a tried-and-true formula employed by nearly every major network and cable channel. In my view, we will also continue to see brands embrace this approach as consumers increasingly tune out ads and tune into content. So smile: you may be the next person on “Candid Camera.”