A dive into the casting process and considerations around using non-actors and actors.

Being authentic: when real people star in ads

More ads are eschewing actors and casting real people instead, but there are challenges

By Olivia Atkins

As brands increasingly strive for authenticity in their communications there's been a corresponding rise in the number of docu-inspired ads featuring powerful performances from real people.

What's more, recent ads like the filmic #DetoxYourFeed campaign for Dove’s Self Esteem Project (below) by Ogilvy or Microsoft’s Beyond Xbox: A Player Like Me by McCann suggest an appetite for ads that do more than just sell. These examples demonstrate how brands are leading the charge and changing conversations around mental health by providing solutions with their propositions. Both of these campaigns enlisted non-actors, who reacted naturally, to add a layer of truth to the campaign’s story.

But how do agencies and their production partners create the right conditions for non-actors to operate in? Working with real people requires a different approach to working with actors, who are well-versed with stepping onto set and performing in front of a crew; many campaigns end up falling short, with the finished work actually lacking authenticity or creating a sense of detachment with audiences.

Lucky Generals’ creative director Ed Cole suggests asking whether using trained actors or non-actors “feels authentic to the role they are playing". Sometimes an actor can convey a real-life experience more powerfully than an untrained person who has the lived experience.

Actors vs non-actors

There are different reasons for using actors or non-actors within campaigns. Generally-speaking, non-actors are hired when there is a need to capture something authentic on-screen as they can bring untapped emotion to a situation which makes for better viewing or a more powerful creative response. Actors - by definition - are always "performing".

“There are instances where an important story needs to be told but sensitivities or safeguarding prevent the real person portraying it publicly,” says Simone Harvey, inclusive campaigns director at The Unmistakables. “In those instances, casting an actor would make more sense.”

But representing the lived experience by casting real people who have actually lived through that experience brings a credibility and a truth to a commercial that can be hugely authoritative.

“When the ad calls for real people on-screen, it’s only real people that will make it truly authentic,” says Emily Marr, chief production officer at Leo Burnett. “Having said that, being on a full set with crew, production company, the agency, lights, camera and all that action is no mean feat and is bound to be incredibly intimidating for someone who isn’t used to or trained in that field. How people will react when literally put under the spotlight shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Considerations for working with non-actors

Putting real people in the spotlight can be intimidating especially if they don’t have experience of being in front of a camera. Creating a safe environment for them to work in is essential.

That safe environment is even more important when the real people you are casting are being used precisely because they have experiences that make them vulnerable.

McCann's Xbox’s A Player Like Me campaign, in which young gamers with rare medical conditions were connected to others also undergoing hospital treatment for the same condition, is a great example of the way real-world casting can add a powerful and inspiring extra dimension to a campaign. The ad highlights the role that brands can play in cultivating community and sensitively showcases how gaming can aid the recovery process.

Non-actors were vital to bring this message to light. Instilling real emotions into the campaign made its message stronger and the interactions between gamers endearing.

But working with non-actors is all about getting the tone right. Harvey suggests: “Create a pre-shoot rapport and allow time for people to ease into the process. The aim is to capture the authenticity that real people bring when they’re comfortable in an environment.”

Remaining patient on-set and being sensitive to the particular needs of your real-life cast will ensure that they trust the creative process and - when the commercial focusses on a personal journey - trust you with their story.

Actors will know what’s expected of them and take direction easily – whereas non-actors may be more nervous and need coaching or feedback to adjust into the role.

Cole agrees: “Depending on the role, it can help to ask questions and chat to the non-actors on a personal level. This puts them at ease and gleans little bits of knowledge about their lives, which can be useful for a director when asking them to imagine a scene or give performance notes. The director used this technique to great effect on our latest co-op funeral care campaign which entirely featured real people.”

Other popular methods for making non-actors comfortable include practicing breathing techniques and aiming to create a relaxed on-set environment.

As the ad industry diversifies further, varying cultural needs should also be better considered. Set designs and locations need to improve accessibility and observing religious traditions, like whether someone is fasting during Ramadan or needs space to pray, is also vitally important, whether you're casting real-life actors or simply ensuring your entire production process accommodates a diverse workforce.

“That kind of attention to detail and care helps people perform at their best,” Harvey says. “Brands that want to be inclusive should also recognise that what happens in the lead up to a shoot and behind the camera counts just as much as who's shown on-screen - every interaction matters.”

Offering aftercare as required

“When real people are used in documentary-style campaigns, which can be revealing or sensitive in nature, creative teams should look out for signs of re-lived trauma on-set and pay particular attention to the emotional well-being of the people involved,” says Selma Nicholls, founder and casting director at Looks Like Me Casting. “There should be an on-set and aftercare support package provided if required.”

Having awareness of what it takes for non-actors to participate in the campaign is important. Teams should provide safety, offer guidance and be generous with time to set the right conditions.

Marr adds: “In a commercial, we have a very small window to tell our story and usually the casting is what makes or breaks the spot, so all eyes are literally on the actors. If non-actors are put in a situation where they are out of their comfort zone and haven’t had the right amount of prep, then their discomfort will shine through on the screen.”

Harvey agrees, and cites the value of casting diversely and acting more inclusively on-set, suggesting creatives “make culturally confident decisions”. She says: “We often advise to choose a team behind the camera that is more reflective and representative of the audience you are trying to serve. The industry still has a way to go for this to be a reality, but making concerted efforts to change both sides of the lens is crucial.”

Remembering that non-actors don't necessarily understand the way our industry works is also vital. “It’s important not to assume that non-actors understand the advertising or marketing process,” concludes Harvey. “Make sure people are aware of how and where the campaign will be executed and flag any potential concerns so they're fully cognisant of the implications and can make an informed choice of how their likeness will be portrayed. Provide a point of contact who can help and sign-post additional support if needed should there be any negative commentary or other ramifications from the campaign.”

Paying respect for their time and participation is crucial, as non-actors are sharing their lived experience for the campaign, which is valuable. Creative teams can work harder to listen to non-actors and guide their contribution.

Nicholls says: “Casting 'real' people provides authentic and nuanced stories. Having the right people in the room within the creative teams who are emotionally and culturally astute will create documentary-inspired campaigns that are not seen as gimmicky but are more likely to be meaningful and resonate with people.”


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