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.
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.