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Season 5: Candid Commercials: Real People in Advertising

Airs January 22nd/27th, 2011

This week on the Age of Persuasion, the topic is "Candid Commercials: Real People in Advertising." The advertising industry has a long history of using real people in advertising. It may be a testimonial, a hidden camera, a man-on-the-street interview, a prank phone call or a blind taste test. The results are often hilarious and memorable. More importantly, they always deliver that one thing actors cannot - genuine spontaneity. We'll take a fun look at this time-honoured technique in advertising, and why it has been used by advertisers for over 100 years.

Listen to this episode as streaming audio (runs 26:30)
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All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.
On June 28th, 1947, a very unusual radio show began on ABC.

It was called "Candid Microphone" and was created by Allen Funt. He was an advertising art director, who later became a copywriter working in the ad agency radio department. It was there he found his calling.

Funt experimented with on-location recording at the agency, and later in WW2 with the Signal Corp.

When his tour of duty was done, he came back to New York, took his recording experience, and created Candid Microphone.

In the show, he secretly recorded the conversations of real people, creating situations where they had to react, capturing a spontaneity that had never been heard before on radio.

Shortly after, Funt created "Candid Camera" on ABC TV.

It would be on and off the air until 1960, where it had a long uninterrupted run until 1967. The show was hilarious, and it raced up the ratings:

Here is a wonderful tribute to Candid Camera and Allen Funt, narrated by his son:

While Candid Microphone, and later, Candid Camera, inspired Madison Avenue to use real people in broadcast advertising, it wasn't the first time advertising had tapped its own customers.

Back in the late 1800s, Pears Soap was one of the first brands to use "real people" in its ads. In their print advertisements, they did an unusual thing by combining the testimonial of a famous actress (to give the soap prestige) with a testimonial from a highly respected doctor (to give the soap credibility).



This campaign was one of the earliest examples of testimonial advertising. It made Pears Soap one of the top brands of its time. It also demonstrated the true appeal of using real people in advertising, which was to achieve "believability" - the elusive element that every advertiser craves. When an advertiser says they are the best, it's self-serving. But when a non-biased customer sings its praises, that's credibility.

When broadcast finally arrived, advertisers rushed to air with testimonials. It led to pitches that stated "8 out of 10 people prefer the taste of a certain coffee" or that "4 out of 5 housewives prefer a certain dish soap" or that "More doctors smoke... camels!"

Sometimes, testimonials were provided by letters sent by real people. Here's an early commercial for Geritol where the host reads a testimonial from a happy customer:

Decades later, in the 1970s, a campaign featuring real people led to one of the biggest advertising battles in history.

Pepsi wanted to increase their market share in the southern U.S. They knew from research that people preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coke in blind taste tests (interesting to note that when Coke and Pepsi squared off in taste tests where both brands were revealed, Coke won hands down. Proving again that people taste the "brand" when drinking Coke, more than the actual formula).

So Pepsi created the famous "Pepsi Challenge" campaign, crossing the country with blind taste tests.


The campaign featured real Coke drinkers from all over the country surprising themselves by choosing Pepsi in blind taste tests. Their shock was real and honest. It was incredibly persuasive television.

As the Pepsi Challenge continued, the company hired actor Gabe Kaplan from the 70s sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter" to host the commercials:

A pool of over 300 "real person" Pepsi Challenge commercials was shot, which allowed Pepsi to make claims like "Denver Chooses Pepsi!" or "San Diego chooses Pepsi!" Here's a commercial they ran that showed viewers how the Pepsi Challenge was sweeping the country:

Pepsi Director of Marketing, Sergio Zyman, (who later held the same job at Coke) has since said that the purpose of the Pepsi Challenge was not to prove that Pepsi tasted better than Coke, but to say it tasted AS GOOD.

Zyman felt that if Pepsi never tried to be better than Coke, the public would rally behind them. He was right.

As he said, so much more meaning is conveyed through the non-verbal cues we all give off when we speak spontaneously - the facial expressions, the body language and the intonation of our words themselves. It was a genuine reaction that actors could not achieve.

That was the power of the real-person Pepsi Challenge.

As everyone knows, the success of the Pepsi Challenge led Coke to change their revered formula and create New Coke:

New Coke.jpg

Well-loved comedian Bill Cosby was hired by Coke to become the New Coke ambassador:

Sensing disaster, Coke then quickly switched back to its original formula only 77 days later, in one of the biggest marketing blunders in history.

John Sculley, the President of Pepsi at the time, who would later go on to run Apple, said of the Pepsi campaign, "Never before had comparative advertising had such spontaneity and believability."


In his book titled "Odyssey," Pepsi President John Sculley made a shocking admission:

When he took the taste test himself, he chose Coke.

You never can tell what a "real person" taste test will reveal.