Mythbuster: Don't put the audience in the ads

Les Binet and Sarah Carter

Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the idea that the audience should be in the ads

We were discussing a creative idea for a food brand the other day. The brand manager was unhappy. Volume potential lay in encouraging use by families, so he was worried that the proposed script showed a young couple tucking into the food with friends. This is a classic example of the myth of 'consumer identification', ie to appeal to certain people, we should feature said people. The result: heated debate at script and casting meetings, and ads featuring ad world's version of 'normal people' – people almost like us, but with better hair, make-up and fridge cleanliness. Grrrrr…

This myth seems like common sense. So what's the problem? First, people don't like seeing themselves in ads, whatever they say in pre-testing. If you ask people in research, 'who should feature in ads targeting you?', they will tend to say 'people like us'. But that doesn't mean this is what we should do. M&S found this to its cost a few years ago, when it featured a naked 'ordinary' woman in a TV ad (described memorably by one City analyst as 'the fat-bird-running-up-the-hill ad'). It didn't take long for this brief foray into real people to be replaced by a highly successful campaign featuring Twiggy, Dannii Minogue and beautiful models. If you want to portray the public, warts and all, do it at one step removed. Animal characters, for example, are fantastic for this. For many years, the famous PG Tips tea ads in the UK featured chimps dressed as humans displaying all manner of snobbery, ignorance and intolerance, which would be inconceivable if played by people.