• The man on the street is a frickin’ liar
I must have been around eight years old when I saw a Candid Camera spot that taught me almost everything I needed to know about “man on the street” testimonials.
It involved a restaurant owner asking his customers what they thought about a new brand of coffee. The catch? Each cup of coffee had several heaping teaspoons of mustard added. The camera, of course, was hidden, but the ketchup bottle, which he waved conspicuously in front of their faces, had a thick cord running out the bottom. The customers, then, were led to believe they were being “secretly” interviewed for a commercial.
They waxed poetic. It was the best coffee they’d ever tasted. This was the way coffee was supposed to taste. And so on. Of course, what the camera caught (that their words were meant to hide) were the expressions of shuddering disgust. The most amusing was one customer who was asked if he’d like another cup. His face showed pure horror, even as his mouth said, “I’d love one.”
I learned then and there that testimonials in ads are completely worthless. People will agree to whatever the interviewer asks, so long as they believe they’re going to appear in a commercial for giving the right answers.
Some interviews, of course, are more subtle than others. In one campaign, shoppers coming out of a store were asked if they would trade one of various items they bought for two items of a different brand. I no longer remember what the product was, but let’s say it was Tide.
The spot went roughly like this:
Interviewer: Would you trade one bottle of your dish detergent for two bottles of another brand?
Interviewer: Would you trade one box of facial tissues for two of another brand?
Interviewer: Would you trade one box of Tide for two of another brand?
Shopper: No. Definitely not.
Now forgetting for the moment that the brand-loyal testimonials are culled from what may have been hundreds of responses, look at what the interviewer did in this case. Each item was mentioned in a generic fashion, except for the one being advertised. This alone was enough to clue-in most shoppers which product demanded their loyalty if they wanted a chance to be in the commercial. And there was no hiding the fact that it was a commercial. The cameraman stood behind the interviewer who, in turn, held a very distinctive microphone in his hand.
There’s really nothing more I want to say about this, except to wonder just how many consumers are actually influenced by on-air testimonials. The stars who act as spokespeople for various products are well paid for their efforts, and we all know it. Do any of us really believe that Mischa Baron sits at home washing her hair with Herbal Essences products? Or that Rhianna applies her own makeup using Cover Girl? For that matter, do we really believe that all those “real-people-not-actors” who heap praise upon various cleaning products and skin creams didn’t know they were being filmed for a commercial? Or that if they did, that they nevertheless answered honestly?
Do we really believe this?
I don’t know. It’s obvious that the major ad agencies think so. But then, the major ad agencies also seem to think that anyone over 40 is only interested in buying adult diapers and health insurance, so maybe they’re not exactly in touch with things the way they should be. And let’s not forget Zig’s rather disastrous campaign for Ikea (“Ikea’s advertising guerrilla ordered to clean up after itself“).
All I know is that from the age of eight, I never again paid the slightest attention to testimonial-based advertising — except to keep my eye out for whatever trick was being used.
God bless Candid Camera.