Last year I got paid $6,000 to eat a turkey breakfast sandwich. I also sold car insurance, beer, breakfast cereal, real estate advice, financial services and hardware. Ever wonder why the same small group of actors keep popping up in commercials? They know how to decode the marketing message and translate it into performance. They can eat a sandwich like a pro and make the message pop!
To please your clients and make your next commercial shoot run smoothly, spot these three things that great commercial actors do better than the rest:
1) They sell the promise not the product:
Many products solve the same problem and it’s the marketing that differentiates them. Take two snacks, Snickers (a candy bar) and Protinis (single serve chicken strips). Both Snickers and Protinis solve the hunger problem but make very different promises.
In a recent Snickers campaign a bunch of dudes are doing dude things with their pal Godzilla. They’re hanging at the beach, ogling girls, dancing at a house party and finally one of the dudes says “Godzilla’s actually pretty cool.” His pal responds “Except when he’s hungry.” Cut to Godzilla on a rampage, crushing cars and liquefying buildings with his laser breath. The tagline appears: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Snickers isn’t selling a snack, it’s promising a better you through hunger relief.
Protinis has a spot featuring Olympic medalist Hayley Wickenheiser rushing to pack lunches, hitting the ice and working at a computer late at night. Protinis are touted as “The Official Snack of Everything” but Protinis is not selling us a snack either. Protinis is promising us time savings.
When breaking down a commercial script, great commercial actors articulate the promise not the product. In acting parlance, it is the “what” of the scene. It’s the scene’s reason for being and it informs their performance. At an audition, the client will never see a great actor chugging a bottle of Voss Artesian Water; Voss promises class. In contrast, at a Gatorade audition an actor might do just that to underscore the promise of rapid rehydration. Look for actors that sell the promise not the product.
2) They identify the marketing tactic:
Marketers use a long list of tactics to motivate consumers to action. A few common examples include:
Fear: If you don’t use this acne cream your friends won’t see you, they’ll only see your pimple.
Shame: If you don’t buy this insurance your family will be left with crippling debt.
Social Ascendance: People in the know drink this beer.
Entitlement: You work hard so you deserve this vacation.
Morality: Because you love your dog you’re going to feed him the very best food.
Excellent commercial actors identify the tactic to raise the stakes and turn the screws. In the Snickers example, marketers use fear, implying that you become a monster when you’re hungry. We therefore see all the actors laughing at Godzilla’s jokes when he is satiated and fearing for their lives when he’s hungry. Conversely, Protinis appeals to a mom’s sense of morality: a good woman does it all, kids and career. The actress’ job here is to illustrate how Protinis helps her excel in all areas of her life despite the demands of her day.
Marketers use tactics to drive purchase. Look for actors that turn the volume up on those tactics. But how loud should the volume be? We need to find an actor that can nail the tone.
3) They nail the tone:
A good actor can be real and present even when plugging a product that they’ve never tried. For example, a recent Sexual Health Ontario campaign was aimed at reducing the spread of STIs. Perhaps all the actors did have chlamydia, but I’m guessing not. Tone can vary widely and hence an actors’ ability to deliver an honest and grounded performance brings the promise and tactic of the commercial to the surface. This is where great actors distinguish themselves and why the same group books all the work.
Despite using drastically different tones, most commercials are comedic. For example, Nissan touts its fuel economy by making the gas station seem like a horror movie, saving with Scotiabank allows parents to escape their kids for a week, and Cadbury creates a fantastical laboratory that distributes chocolate from air balloons. They’re all comedic but their tones are different. A good copywriter and art director lead us strongly towards the perfect tone. Look for your actor to bring an honest performance. As long as the actor can be honest and present, a great director will steer them towards a winning performance. Obviously, not all spots are comedic. Life Insurance, Mental Health Services, Legal Advice all tend towards a more stoic tone but we demand the same thing from our actors: Be real!
Spokesperson, Man-on-the-Street, and Walk-and-Talks deserve their own paragraph because the actor embodies the brand. These are the spots where at some point the actor stares directly down the barrel of the camera and tells you why they love their razor, or car, or reverse home mortgage. Think of the Canadian Tire guy or the Roll up the Rim dude. We don’t like taking advice from our spouses, or parents or kids so 99% of the time, the spokesperson must deliver the copy as if they are talking to their pals. A spokesperson nails the tone when they are able to imagine why they are talking to their pals. In the case of a razor blade, it’s no big deal, but that moisturizing strip really does give them a closer shave. If we’re making a life insurance ad, the tone is stern but reassuring, underscoring the seriousness and solution of Our Hero Brand. The actor must be trustworthy and unless instructed otherwise their job is to inform the audience, not to hard sell them. We circle back to the same acting imperative: Be Real (while looking directly down the barrel of a camera).
Putting it all together: How I ate a sandwich professionally:
As an actor, I got paid $6,000 to eat a sandwich professionally. Chump change to the hundreds of thousands spent on production and many times more on the media buy. Looking at the script through the client’s eyes and translating the marketing message into a real performance helped me nail that role. Here’s a recap of how I did it and what to look for the next time you’re hiring an actor.
The Client wasn’t selling a Turkey Breakfast Sandwich, they were promising a great way to start the work day. Picture the sun rising and me in a crisp business suit taking the second bite of a turkey breakfast sandwich. Putting the promise into performance, I enjoyed the sandwich while looking crisp and alert, ready to tackle a day at the office right after a delicious breakfast.
The tactic was entitlement. I’m good at what I do so I deserve a great breakfast. Translated into performance, this was all about what I was eating. With each take I tried to taste something different. Was that a bit of tangy cheese? Mmmm, that turkey sausage patty is super savoury! Wow, that English muffin is soft… god this is good!
Finally, the tone was a simple slice of life. The spot featured different workers from all walks of life enjoying the same breakfast. Hence, I avoided hamming up how much I enjoyed turkey. I just enjoyed it. When some flour from the English muffin got on my lip, I didn’t laugh knowing a crew of 40 was watching me, I just brushed it off. I was real.
By identifying an actor that understands the promise, tactic and tone of your spot, you’ll make your shoot day easier and have hired someone who can eat a sandwich like a goddamn pro.