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Familiarity Breeds Content, or The Power of Fait Accompli

Posted in Advertising, Almost Advice, Guest Bloggers, Look-For Ads, Marketing, Television

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Awhile ago, I wrote about how casting decisions almost always make someone cranky. Lately I’ve been seeing lots of commercials that speak to the flip side of the crankiness factor.

Creative teams are always on the lookout for ways to connect with the zeitgeist. Most of the time, if you see a “hip” reference in an ad, it’s already gone mainstream and it ain’t hip anymore.

But advertising can move the social needle and get more people to migrate their views from the fringe of the bell curve into the big bulge of it. The more we’re exposed to an idea, circumstances or conditions, the more we tend to accept them as within the norm.

Case in point is the increasing portrayal in advertising of nonconventional families and pairings.

The first time or two some people see this, it can be jarring for them. But for the majority of people, I venture, this reaction fades over time as the imagery becomes part of the mainstream. I think one result is that while an individual’s feeling about, say, mixed-race couples might not change, regularly seeing nonconventional portrayals helps move people closer toward at least tolerance, if not acceptance.

Incidentally, despite the popularity of nonconventional casting in ads, there isn’t some vast coordinated conspiracy at work here, though some may suspect that. The advertising/communications community isn’t monolithic, except in its desire to connect with target audiences and to appear tuned in. That means independently latching on to the latest nifty trend.

So how do you “authentically” ride a social trend? In a word, subtly.

Here’s an example:

Years ago, we did a marketing video that included a planning session in a typical conference room and featured a half-dozen people representing various departments and responsibilities.

One of the actors we cast was a young woman in a wheelchair. The crew made two shots of her delivering her lines; one where the wheelchair was obvious, and the other, where only elements of the chair were visible and not immediately noticeable.

I told the editor to use the second shot.

“But don’t you want people to see that she’s in a wheelchair?” the producer asked.

“Not obviously so,” I replied. “The idea here is for the audience to focus on her and what she’s saying. The power of the wheelchair is that you don’t see it right away, if at all, and that it’s irrelevant to a person’s ability to contribute and be good at the job.”

The point? When nonconventional casting is not the star of the show, advertising can influence attitudes as well as sell product. When you make it the star—”look how hip we are”—you’re more likely to irritate people rather than influence them.