Finding 'Real' People for Ads Takes Real Effort

Most people who have seen Bill Demby's TV commercial remember him not so much for his face but for the two legs that he doesn't have.

The ad for Du Pont--which has been airing for nearly two years--features the Vietnam veteran playing rough-and-tumble basketball in a pickup game. The voice-over in the ad says, "When Bill Demby was in Vietnam, he dreamed of coming home and playing a little basketball. A dream that all but died when he lost both legs to a Viet Cong rocket."

Demby now wears two artificial legs made from a Du Pont plastic. Although he falls down once in the ad, the legs appear to give him some of the same smooth moves as everyone else on the court. "Now Bill's back," the commercial concludes, "and some say he hasn't lost a step."

This commercial vaulted Demby into stardom. He has since appeared on numerous talk shows and was featured on the TV show 20/20. He was in Esquire magazine. He has hired a Washington public relations firm to book his speaking engagements. And he has received offers to star in a TV movie.

Now try to picture that same commercial cast with someone else in Demby's role. Pretty hard, isn't it? Demby was an unemployed, unknown Vietnam veteran until he was discovered by a New York company called Faces & Places. The company specializes in finding "real people"--not professional actors--to appear in TV commercials. After several weeks of searching for the right person for the Du Pont ad, a Faces & Places researcher found Demby in Nashville, Tenn., competing in something called the National Amputee Games.

"Originally, I really wasn't interested in doing the commercial," said Demby, who was very cool to the Faces & Places researcher who approached him at the event. "I figured they'd try to hook me up to some invisible wires and have me flying through the air while standing on my head."

Of course, he eventually did agree to make the ad. But he still hasn't quite figured out how the commercial casting company found him. "Can you imagine having only a handful of days to find a black Vietnam veteran, who is an amputee and who happens to play basketball?" asked the 38-year-old. "If I had to do a job like that, I'd be a lot more bald than I am now."

Well, it took plenty of research to find Bill Demby. At the request of the ad agency, BBDO Worldwide, officials from Faces & Places contacted Vietnam veterans' organizations, veterans hospitals and support groups for the handicapped. "I began to feel like Sherlock Holmes," said Kathy Sorkin, president of Faces & Places. "One little clue led to another."

This business of finding real people to appear in television commercials has blossomed into its own mini-industry. Advertising agencies--many of which are trying to cut back on staff--are increasingly looking to outside specialists to help them find ordinary people to appear in their ads. "You have Barbara Bush as First Lady and Roseanne Barr as everyone's favorite actress," said Laura Slutsky, president of PeopleFinders, a New York specialty casting firm. "So what do you expect?"

Well, advertising agencies, which have this sudden hankering for real people in their ads, sometimes want real people who do unreal things. Last year, Slutsky faced the task of finding people born in the last century who have remained unusually active. With the help of several senior citizen organizations, she found a 91-year-old bike rider, a 95-year-old softball player and a 102-year-old woman who still flies a private airplane. They all appeared in an ad for a regional health-care company.

Not all the assignments are that tough. PeopleFinders found all those cheerful coffee drinkers in the Maxwell House ads who tell weatherman Willard Scott that Maxwell House is their favorite brew. And it selected those Ford employees who gush over Ford in the company's ads. Meanwhile, Faces & Places has found real people to appear in ads for Burger King and Pizza Hut.

Both PeopleFinders and Faces & Places have opened offices in Los Angeles, where more than half of their ads are filmed. And the greater Los Angeles area--particularly portions of San Bernardino County--has recently emerged as one of the national hot spots for finding everyday people to star in ads.

"In New York, everyone is suspicious of you," said Sorkin, who worked at PeopleFinders before leaving several years ago to form Faces & Places. "But in Southern California, people are warm, friendly and eager to talk about just about anything."

This week, Slutsky will be in the Los Angeles area hunting for real Dove soap users to appear in testimonial ads. But she won't say where she's looking. For that matter, she also plans to use a fake name and disguise her appearance. Slutsky doesn't want you to find her. Because if she--or her assistants--don't find you on their own, they won't even consider using you in a commercial. That way, they say, they're assured objectivity in the ads. The Federal Trade Commission requires that all testimonial advertising be authentic.

Slutsky looks for people at local shopping malls, bowling alleys and even at Laundromats. Or, she might just knock on your door and identify herself as someone doing general market research. That is how PeopleFinders found Beverly Foster.

You might not recognize Foster's name. But her face has been in Dove soap ads for months. In the Dove commercial, she says, "Just because I'm 50 doesn't mean I have to give up on my skin."

Her road to commercial fame began more than a year ago, when a PeopleFinders researcher knocked on the door of her North Hollywood home. They asked her to fill out a marketing survey on soap, for which she was paid $5. They later asked Foster to try Dove for seven days and this time paid her $10 for her trouble. Finally, they returned and filmed her comments. Foster expects the residuals from those commercials to earn her more than $10,000.

"I never dreamed I would be in commercials," said Foster, a retired clerk from the Ralphs grocery chain. Since the ads began to air, "I've been hearing from friends I haven't heard from in years." And, yes, she has hired an agent.

Although there may be plenty of glamour in appearing in the ads, it isn't always so glamorous finding the real people.

Sorkin remembers trying to find commercial fishermen in Rhode Island who not only used Alka-Seltzer Plus but also had colds and were willing to talk about it. "I think we met every commercial fisherman in Rhode Island," she said of three wet and chilly weeks she spent in Rhode Island searching for the right fishermen.

And a few years ago, Slutsky spent days at a Laundromat in Parsippany, N.J., washing other people's dirty duds. It seems Slutsky was looking for testimonials from people who had Calgon water softener added to their laundry water. But Slutsky forgot to bring along an assistant to do the laundry, so she did it all herself. "I haven't done laundry since the day I left there," she said.

Then there are the occasional failures. Sorkin recalls spending nearly 10 days in Bristol, Tenn., looking for real people to appear in an upbeat commercial for Slice soft drink. But all the locals had such thick Southern accents that it was difficult to understand their pronunciation of the word "Slice." So the agency ended up shipping in actors from New York.

Likewise, Slutsky is still miffed at her inability to find for Avia athletic shoes a 5-foot, 5-inch teen-ager who could slam dunk a basketball. "I went on every basketball court in Brooklyn," said Slutsky. "This is the one time I struck out."

Ad executives recognize that paying outside firms from $5,000 to $100,000 to find real people can be a costly gamble. "So much of it is a roll of the dice," said Charlotte Rosenblatt of D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles. "Sometimes, they don't come up with anybody."

Ed Wax, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, suggests a cheaper alternative: Flipping through the mail received from consumers. "That's how we've found some people for Tide advertisements," he said. But no advertiser should rely exclusively on this kind of advertising, Wax warned. "It shouldn't be used as a crutch."

Ads with real people can succeed in a big way, though.

"They don't just find the standard characters who say, 'Yes, I use this dish soap all the time in my kitchen,' " said Robert Schmidt, president of the New York ad agency Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. One of his clients is Subaru, and several years ago for an ad campaign, PeopleFinders located people who drove Subarus who had last names like Honda, Saab and Ford. Joked Schmidt, "They dig up people from places that no one else would go to."

And sometimes they strike gold, as Du Pont and Bill Demby can attest. But Demby, who expects to earn $20,000 in residuals, has no illusions. "I look at this whole thing as a train ride," he said. "When the train stops, I'll get off."

WPP Loses Little in Takeover of Ogilvy

After all the talk--and all the headlines--WPP Group's $747-million offer for the Ogilvy Group neared completion Monday as WPP reported that it had received more than 95% of Ogilvy's shares.

And in stark contrast to the J. Walter Thompson merger of two years ago--which resulted in a major loss of clients and top agency executives--the merger has cost Ogilvy just one big client, Maxwell House, and one key executive, creative director Norman Berry.

WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell wasn't celebrating Monday as me met in London with analysts, however. "There was no big party or anything," said a WPP spokesman. "It was business as usual."

Searching for Conroy's Blooming Image

You can bet that Nelson (Skip) Riddle is a believer in flower power: His Los Angeles ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi DFS, landed the $2-million business for Conroy's Florists.

And it will soon be creating a new ad campaign for the Long Beach-based retailer, which has 75 stores throughout California and Texas. "The chain's advertising has had a tendency to promote flowers rather than Conroy's," said Riddle. "It needs a distinctive brand image."

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