Media: Is reality getting out of hand?

Viewers may respond positively to `ordinary' people in advertisements. But those chosen to sell the goods often take on more than they bargained for. Meg Carter on the price of getting real
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The Independent Online
Imagine. One day you're a schoolteacher from Rochester, the next you're a personality, star of a major TV advertising campaign and now an expose in the News of the World. Welcome to the world of the Welch family, home-made stars of BT's latest Friends&Family ads. If you don't know them already (they're only starring in 20 TV commercials, after all), they're the latest addition to the growing ranks of ordinary people chosen as ambassadors by advertisers eager to woo a sceptical public. Why? Because they're credible, they're sympathetic and - above all - they're "real".

"Real people work well for us," explains Colin Wise, BT's communications manager. BT's Friends&Family campaign features a winner a month, picked at random to go on the holiday of a lifetime with 29 friends and relations, all expenses paid by BT. The catch? A film crew comes too, and their recorded highlights of the trip appear as TV commercials. The first "winners" were the Welches, who travelled to Cancn in Mexico and took their local vicar.

Next up will be a mechanic from Cambridge, whose family is now packing for a trip to Sun City in South Africa. "People are nicely surprised when they realise it's real people in our advertising campaign," Mr Wise adds. "They're often easier to identify with than actors."

Mrs Emmett, from Chippenham, has a lot to answer for. Back in 1962 she started a bit of a trend when she starred in a TV commercial for Daz, telling a sceptical British viewing public from her front doorstep that the soap powder really did produce the whitest wash she'd ever seen. Since then, battalions of ordinary folk have been mustered by advertising executives to ooh! and aah! over products as diverse as Stork, Pepsi and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Last November, the Fresh Produce Consortium launched Get Fresh, a nationwide campaign to encourage people to eat more healthily. Anthea Turner announced a nationwide search to find the person who best embodied a healthy lifestyle. The prize? A Seat Ibiza 1.4 hatchback, along with the role of Get Fresh Ambassador - duties include touring supermarkets and shopping centres and appearing in promotional literature, in-store displays and advertising, as well as conducting media interviews on behalf of the campaign.

"We were looking for someone who presented a fully-rounded picture of health," Peter Rae, Get Fresh organiser, explains. "Not a catwalk stunner who smoked like a chimney. They had to have a clear skin, bright eyes, strong hair ..." Sounds a bit like Cruft's. It was more like Miss World. Shortlisted participants were interviewed to make sure they were outgoing and able to handle media interviews. The winner was Jacqui Curtis, a part- time aerobics instructor from South Shields and now "Fresh Face of 1997". Negotiations are already under way to get Jacqui on to daytime TV. "We also hope to have her doing something special with Newcastle United - she's a supporter," adds Mr Rae. "We'd like her to lead the assembled fans into the stadium for an aerobics work-out, leading the proceedings with a Madonna head-set." Then there's the book (it's called Diets are for Dinosaurs), the video, even the Jacqui Curtis franchised exercise class. "The beauty is, she's neither a white-coated nutritional boffin, nor Jane Fonda. We hope people will take notice of what she's saying, because she's real."

Advertising agencies endorse Mr Rae's sentiments - up to a point. "The only thing real people can give you is credibility, because no one really trusts advertisers - we're like barristers," says Paul Cardwell, creative director at the London advertising agency Doner Cardwell Hawkins, which produced the current TV campaign for Punjana Tea featuring the real-life worst tea-makers in Britain. "The hard thing about real people is what to do with them."

The initial idea with Punjana was to take a hand-held camera and run up the garden path, shouting "Your tea's crap".

The Big Breakfast approach, however, was soon shelved in favour of something "more constructive and sympathetic". The agency invited the public to nominate friends or relations who made a really bad cup of tea, then selected the most camera-friendly and took them to Punjana's Kenyan plantation, where they were filmed learning what makes delicious cups of tea.

"The upside is instant credibility," Mr Cardwell explains. And cost: apart from holiday expenses, "real people" come free. "But you risk every pitfall under the sun. Choose a member of the public at random and you could find yourself with a sex offender, criminal or addict." Mr Wise agrees: "When you use professional actors you are guaranteed a performance. There's a risk with non-actors. Once in front of the camera, they can be self-conscious. You end up shooting more film than the norm. Which happened in Cancn when we came back with hours and hours of it, much of which we couldn't use."

Then there's the "F" factor. F for fame, that is. "Some people start behaving like celebrities," Mr Cardwell mutters. "They can become over- demanding. Or simply turn round at the end of it and tell the world, `I've been ripped off'. You must treat them very carefully."

By all accounts, he got off lightly with the mother and daughter team Geraldine and Serena Roe from Tunbridge Wells, stars of the Punjana ads. "When they told me my daughter would have to tell me in the commercial that I couldn't make a good cup of tea, I was amazed," Mrs Roe observes. "I'm a pretty good cook." Still, it was a small price to pay for a trip to Kenya ... So, what did she think of the finished film? "It took a week to make and I must say, I don't think it's been very well cut. I'm sure I could have made it better." Tabloid interest, especially during a quiet news week (or general election campaign), is a bonus, although most admit that it can prove to be a double-edged sword. Take what happened to Diane Welch. When approached by BT she was "delighted" to take part: "I have a BT phone, a BT answering machine and BT mobile. It wasn't as if they were asking me to endorse something I didn't use."

The implications of the situation dawned upon her slowly. "I live and work in a small community where we all knew each other anyway. In fact, it only really struck me last Saturday when I went into Chatham and heard someone saying: `It's her'." A day later, the News of the World published an expose. "Number's up for BT's TV family", the paper blared, announcing that her husband, Terry, had recently absconded with the woman from next door.

"I have maintained my integrity and my dignity," is all that Diane Welch will say. Yet, despite understandable frustration with Grub Street's intrusion, she remains enthusiastic about the BT campaign: "I've always been a bit of a closet actress, so I'm enjoying this immensely."

Real people in ads give "added credibility", she believes, though she adds: "The funny thing is, because of the type of person I am, I don't think many people who see me on the telly think I'm real. They think I'm an actress. But I'm not; it's really me"n