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Mad World: When advertisers stop being polite and start getting real



We had a conversation in the comments section on another Mad World post a while back regarding ads that use real people instead of actors to sell their products. Do these people get paid? Are they actually just actors in disguise? Why are we strangely compelled by their "real" presence in commercials? Well, dear Mad World readers, to get to the bottom of these issues, I recently went undercover as a "real" person in a commercial photo shoot (well I guess I wasn't technically undercover since I am actually a real person, but you know what I mean) and got the scoop. First things first: I can't tell you the name of the company that solicited me (and dozens of other women) to keep it real in their ad campaign. I can tell you that you have likely heard of this company before, and that the photo shoot involved trying on clothes. The campaign hasn't been released yet, so it's hush-hush. Sorry. OK, so here's what happened: Said company put out a call through their advertising agency for real women to try on a new line of clothing and get their photo taken. My friend works for this ad agency, and she asked me specifically if I was interested, because I have one of those bodies that is considered super "real" when it comes to these kinds of campaigns (read: I wear a size 12 and am pretty short—atypical for someone in a clothing commercial, therefore good for demonstrating that your clothes are for "real" women). She said I'd be compensated for my time with a gift card and that I'd get to keep the clothes, plus I'd been wondering about this whole business since we discussed it in that earlier post, so I said yes. Without getting into any gory details, I'll tell you that doing the photo shoot was kind of a nightmare. The photographers and stylists were clearly used to working with professional models, and though they tried to be nice, all of their comments about how I looked in the clothes (which, btw, are supposed to be for regular women but they had me in the biggest size available) made me feel fat and gross. Imagine trying on clothing in a department store and then multiply any possible frustration because a team of conventionally beautiful and thin women are waiting on the other side of the door to critique the way you look. Yeah, it sucked. I realize some of this suckage came from my own body insecurity, but a lot of it also came from the sideways glances and frustrated sighs of the stylists who weren't used to working with a self-conscious non-professional feminist blogger with a 28-inch inseam and big thighs. To add insult to injury, the photographer made me do all sorts of "wacky" things during the shoot, like pretend to do Karate and make a "silly kid face"—the last thing I felt like doing. I don't know if you've had a chance to read this blog post from Shelby Knox about participating in a fashion photo shoot, but my experience was similar (well, except that hers was for a good cause and mine was for a $25 gift card). I've got to hand it to professional models, because I wasn't prepared to fight through that shit and smile during my Karate chops the way they do. I did manage to get a few good ANTM jokes in there, though. However, my main goal (beyond the gift card and the jokes about "smizing") was to get the dirt on how this "real people in a corporate commercial" thing goes from an insider perspective. As I said, insecurity reigned supreme, which I'd imagine is true for a lot of the "real" people who appear in ad campaigns. After all, when an audience is used to seeing professionals who get paid big money to conform to a beauty ideal, anyone who's outside of that is going to stand out and possibly feel self-conscious. In addition, they had me fill out a questionnaire of my likes and dislikes—presumably to use in a print ad, to demonstrate that real women wear these clothes. You know it's true, because I wrote down that I like hot sauce and it's right there on the page! Real talk! Though I appreciated the nod to my personality, it also felt a little cheesy and potentially exploitative, because my love of hot sauce might be used to sell clothes somewhere down the line. As far as the compensation side of things goes, I did get a gift card but I didn't get to keep the clothes. Some of the women did, but I didn't. This made me feel like I looked too shitty in the clothes for them to want to give them to me, although the pretty stylists told me it had something to do with sample sizes, etc., etc.. Whatever. The point is that I was indeed compensated, but at the end of the photo shoot I felt used and crappy and like it totally wasn't worth it. I don't know if other non-actor/models who've appeared in corporate commercials share this sentiment or not, but they might, since it's likely that companies make pretty big money on the campaigns that showcase their images and personalities. I still feel compelled by ads that show "real people keeping it real," so I can't say that I've somehow eschewed the genre now that I've experienced it firsthand and found it to be kind of a bust. Hell, this particular campaign will probably be a big success and lots of us will likely feel refreshed by its use of real women making silly kid faces. However, we probably won't see my face in the magazine ads, because I'm sure my "real" discomfort showed on my "real" face during that "real people" photo shoot. OH_Logo.jpg

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Realer than a real parade in Real City

Kelsey I loved your tell-all (both in print and in person!) I'm so sorry it sucked but it's so valuable for us "real" folks to get an insider perspective. I love the tie-ins to modeling shows too. You kind of just hope that the fashion industry is always just parodying itself when actually it just is a really fucked up and fake industry.

So when do we get to see your smizing silly kid face?

Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

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Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

To add insult to injury, the

To add insult to injury, the photographer made me do all sorts of "wacky" things during the shoot, like pretend to do Karate and make a "silly kid face"—the last thing I felt like doing. I don't know if you've had a chance to read this blog post from Shelby Knox about participating in a fashion photo shoot, but my experience was similar (well, except that hers was for a good cause and mine was for a $25 gift card). I've got to hand it to professional models, because I wasn't prepared to fight through that shit and smile during my Karate chops the way they do. I did manage to get a few good ANTM jokes in there, though.

This! I also did a "real" person ad (for a social services "de-stigma" campaign) and my experiences modeled (ha) yours. I also have a 28" inseam and chubby thighs. I was deemed "too well bred looking", "too attractive" to be believable, the "wrong kind of black person" and the wrong kind of "fat". (I was an hourglassy size 10/12, who did not "read" as fat either on or off camera). In a word, I didn't look like "Precious" therefore I didn't meet the requirements for this campaign once they'd already run me through the ringer. What I found really stressful was how the campaign was designed to showcase all kinds of people who might be at risk for HIV infection, but somehow reinforced the dominant narratives about the kind of people who should consider themselves at risk.

It was an incredibly jarring experience. I was compensated in condoms with the logo of the agency on the wrapper. Most of them expired before I ever had a chance to fill them with water and toss them from rooftops.

Your post was amazing. I have declined other offers to be a "real" person in ad campaigns because I can't shake the experience.

That said, I still find the use of other "real" people quite engaging.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Awesome post, Kelsey. I

Awesome post, Kelsey. I salute your bravery in going undercover!

It Seems Strange, But Unfortunately Par For The Course

It doesn't seem right that the photographer would expect you to do much of anything for only a 25 dollar gift card. Are you sure this photo-shoot was legit? Is modeling one of those occupations that has been somehow exempted from the labor laws? Where did they get these out-of-touch photographers and stylists? They clearly would have benefitted greatly had they been reading Bitch Magazine, where there have been a number of good articles on the trend toward the use of more realistic models, the Lane Bryant advertising campaign amongst others, and they might have learned a little about basic sensitivity. A size 12 is not all that big, even if you are fairly short. i've watched photo-shoots where the fashions were cloths-pinned behind the model to achieve a fit. The people who made those not so nice comments about the fit of the clothes on you sound both ignorant and insensitive. i'm afraid there is still a lot of people like that the fashion and advertising industries. Reading the post by Shelby Knox (unbelievably outrageous - and that was a Woman's magazine wanting to portray a feminist?) i suspect that a high proportion of them are unenlightened to the degree that they are because they only crawl part-way out of their fancy bottles to do their work and have their minds preoccupied with wanting to retreat back into their bottles afterwards. i hope after all of that your photos came out well, that it's all on the up and up, and that he photos are a pleasure to look at. Thanks for the small peek at the less attractive underbelly of that world.

The ideas circulating in

The ideas circulating in this essay about selling authenticity remind me of a short story from awhile ago:

http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2008/03/10/080310fi_fiction_ku...

Basically, it's about a hipster that begins to realize his friends are getting paid to do product placement in their exhibitionistic, trendy lives. It's well-written and extremely unnerving and makes a nice compliment to the wonderful article above. I'm just blown away by the fact that this is actually happening in marketing today, and happened to you!

Thank you for sharing your experiences so eloquently and poignantly.

I hate T.V. for the most

I hate T.V. for the most part, mainly because of the commercials, every single commercial is sexist/racist/ ageist/ what have you, as are advertisements. The ones selling kitchen cleaners have a middle aged women cleaning up the mess their "crazy kids" spilled. Yuk. And yes, I've seen the "real people" ones, also yuk. I hate the shows on tv more, like America's Next Top MOdel, watching the ladies be photographed, I just can't help but think how awkward it must be to be them. Glad to read an article confirming my position. Thanks for taking one for the team!

black bear

black bear