Social realism and scripted reality

Quite recently, an article by Jonathan Bacon was published in Marketing Week, discussing the topic of the rise of social realism in marketing and how it is “hitting the mark” with consumers.  In siting and conversing with people behind the launch of campaigns such as Iceland’s ‘Power of Frozen’, TalkTalk’s, ‘This Stuff Matters’ and Nationwide’s ‘Voices’ campaign, the article was both interesting and thought provoking.  Whilst what has been deemed the ‘Gogglebox culture’ has certainly supported the move towards the use of ‘real people’ in advertising, this phenomenon is hardly new.  In fact, a quick reflection on history shows that reality TV programmes have been aired for over forty years, whilst the showcasing of live competitions, or even the use of reality footage, dates back to the inception of Candid Camera on mainstream television along with its rather liberal ethical codes as early as1948.

Although social realism might not, therefore, be completely new to the marketing world of 2017, we have certainly come a long way in learning what works and what does not work when we look at the portrayal of regular people in advertising. Here are some of our reflections:

Don’t hold a mirror to my life! Consumers are ready to accept advertising for what it is and the same is true for branding. Although ‘entertainment’ (including all its new hybrid guises in a world where information, marketing and entertainment are increasingly blurred), has its own set of rules, one of the most consistent points of resistance for consumers is when they feel advertising is attempting to ‘mirror’ their own reality.  Without fail, marketers who attempt to do this will inevitably fail as there is no modern ‘average’ individual, household or family, nor is there a consistent aspirational version of each.  Social realism is fine depicting an individual, group or context therefore, as long as marketing stops short of implying this is ‘typical’ or an informed norm just because it involves elements of realism.

Social realism not social reality. Equally important is recognising that the depiction of social realism is not, in fact, reality. One only has to look at so called, ‘reality’ television to know that what we might see on The Only Way is Essex, or Made in Chelsea is often a hyperbolic depiction of the reality of an individual or niche group of individuals or, indeed, a far cry from normality for many who live in these respective areas.  Even campaigns with huge success such as Dove’s Real Women don’t actually reflect a true representation of women.  Certainly, they are not actors, but they are all beautiful, confident, camera-ready women which makes their appeal considerably stronger than if they had been randomly selected and depicted in their everyday ‘real’ life context.  Just as consumers don’t wish advertisers to hold a mirror to their life, they also appreciate an aspirational (or at least air-brushed) portrayal of everyday realism, not the true warts and all version we confront behind closed doors!

A stronger role for scripted reality. Following this observation, it seems that the true balance in making social realism work in advertising is, in fact, a form of scripted reality – that which balances elements of realism with a powerful creative vision and expression. Consumers are well aware, for instance, that the depiction of ‘natural beauty’ is a far cry from being truly natural, but are happy to embrace such expressions if they strike the right balance between scripting and reality in terms of talent, environment and artistry.  Brands such as Urban Decay, Gap and Benetton have managed to achieve this in a compelling way, but even as we say this, the benchmark for what constitutes the right balance continues to evolve.  Marketers must stay cognisant of this evolution, not just within their own category’s advertising, but across all categories and popular media as reality shifts continue to move, morph and reinvent themselves.

Talent and engagement is more powerful than social realism itself. On reflection, each of these points are highly interrelated, but it is worth noting, perhaps as a conclusion on the topic of social realism in advertising, that talent and engagement is more powerful that social realism itself. Campaigns or content that works, based on our experience with consumer research, are those that simultaneously achieve two things: (1) empathy, and (2) surprise.  Advertising connection and its ultimate benefit, brand connection, is forged strongly when consumers ‘get’ what is being said, believe in it and can emotionally connect with what is being said or portrayed.  This allows the consumer to feel spontaneous empathy without having to focus on whether the individual, family or context portrayed in the advertising is accurate in its reflection of their own reality.  The second element, surprise, is what cuts through the advertising clutter.  Messaging or creative expression allows us to say, ‘wow’ – it is both unexpected and intriguing, stimulating the senses and acting as a catalyst for the emotional connection to become memorable and/or talkable.  Nationwide’s ‘Voices’ campaign does exactly this.  It balances real people and their talent, but often the power of the artistry is so evocative and the idea behind the campaign sufficiently novel to create what we call, ‘empathetic disruption’.  This, we believe, is considerably more powerful than focussing on the notion of social realism itself and explains why these campaigns have struck a chord with both viewers and media commentators.

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