Marketing executives have known for years that using hard-at-work, nice-looking, real employees in a TV spot can symbolize a brand’s corporate commitment to quality and service. But any marketer getting ready to take this idea to his ad people should first take some time to consider that using real employees in a brand’s advertising can be a tricky proposition.
“There’s a great deal to consider; it’s not for an ordinary ad campaign,” says Linda Pophal, president of Strategic Communications, a Wisconsin-based ad agency. “You have to determine what you’re trying to say with it and if it works for you. From my experience, I usually don’t think using real people in ads works, primarily because the public has become jaded. Most viewers don’t see these employees as credible, no matter how real they look.”
The typical reason to release an employee-based ad is to put a human face on what appears to be an impersonal organization. It’s often used in crisis communications; BP received praise in the advertising community for its spots with employees responding to the Gulf crisis last year saying that the company is “making this right.” Pizza Hut’s new “Your Favorites. Your Pizza Hut.” campaign shows real employees at work to give customers a more personal connection to the brand’s products.
On paper, a campaign like this can look like a slam dunk. But when getting into the nuts and bolts, it’s sometimes difficult to pull off, experts say.
“In advertising, the goal is to create desire and aspiration,” says Michael Goldberg, chief marketing officer of Zimmerman & Partners Advertising in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “When using real people instead of actors, you’ve got to think about whether that’s getting you to your goal.”
Zimmerman was behind the popular Papa John’s campaign that featured the company’s founder, John Schnatter, in its TV advertising. “In that case, there was a clear set of goals,” Goldberg says. “The company was founded based on Mr. Schnatter’s desire to sell a high-quality product. No other pizza company was featuring a personality, so spotlighting him and his standards was a natural and it’s been very successful.”
Although he wasn’t originally an employee, Jared Fogle and his weight-loss story became the public face of the Subway chain and its message of a healthy alternative to regular fast food. “His value as a spokesperson for the company has become priceless,” says Subway spokesman Rob Wilson. “His story resonates, which is why people remember him.”
But Fogle’s weight is not something Subway has any power over.
“That’s one of those things you can’t control when you’re using real people,” Pophal says. “What if Domino’s came out with an expensive campaign a few years ago featuring employees that got lots of publicity? Then fast forward to the spring of 2009, when a group of employees put themselves on YouTube ‘enhancing’ the food they were preparing. That scandal hurt the company, but can you imagine how much worse it would have been if the YouTube employees were also those used in the commercials?”
One way around a potential embarrassment is to insert employees into an ad as background and not give them speaking or featured roles.
“Actors have skills that aren’t shared by many, which is why they’re very effective at communicating a message,” says Ben Wiener, CEO of the ad agency WongDoody, based in Culver City, California. “But there’s still room for real employees. We’ve worked with Alaska Airlines on a campaign that shows their flight attendants, and for these employees there’s a prestige factor. The people selected have high customer service ratings and to be chosen is a big honor, so it adds to employee motivation.”
Wiener says he appreciates it when he sees a company use real employees in commercial spots. “When there’s a scene in a restaurant, there’s no reason why you can’t find actual servers to deliver the food,” he says. “When I see a commercial in which the workers are all perfect models, I have to laugh. I don’t see that in real life and I’m sure most customers don’t either.”
Finding the right employees for a commercial can be complicated. Pizza Hut held a national search for employees for its spot and asked them to send in video submissions that highlighted their personalities. “With a big organization, that’s a good approach,” says Carole Holden, president of Gelmtree Advertising in Orlando, Florida. “It’s better than management contacting employees, since people you think look great may not be very adept on camera.”
Holden, whose company specializes in local and regional commercial production, says the ideal employee for a commercial is “not too good-looking” and yet “not too average.”
“If someone doesn’t come across well on camera, the viewer’s attention may be on them for the wrong reason,” she says.
Another basic yet essential issue, especially for smaller operations, is that employees must sign a release allowing their image to be used.
“It’s one of the most common mistakes I see in local advertising: not getting those waivers signed,” Holden says. “I worked with one client who featured their staff in the ad, including a married couple. After the ad started running the couple divorced and the ex-husband demanded that the company stop running the commercials. Fortunately, they had signed waivers beforehand—otherwise there could have been legal action.”
Compensation is another topic for employees in an advertisement. “I always recommend giving the employees an extra vacation day or a free meal rather than money,” Holden says. “The issue is when you’re paying someone to be on camera, you can get into union trouble, since there are agreements that can require actors be paid a certain amount for commercial work.”
There is an alternative to putting employees on TV, one that still takes advantage of the authenticity real employees project: the company’s website.
“The website is where you can do some different things and it’s a great place to highlight employees where you’re not restricted by having to do it all in 30 seconds,” Pophal says. “You send out a message showing real employees, and they can see that and link to it so their friends see it and build company morale, and if there’s ever a problem it’s easily pulled.”