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“Real people — not paid actors”: why companies love “authentic” advertising

From Dove to Bumble, more companies are enlisting “real people” to market their products.

A magazine Bumble made for its #FindThemOnBumble campaign.

If you live in New York City, Bumble wants to remind you that it exists. The dating/networking/friendship app rolled out a new campaign last week featuring billboards in Times Square, posters in subway stations across the city, and ads in the New York Post. You may soon drink coffee out of a disposable cup ensconced in a Bumble-branded sleeve, or be given a pizza box with Bumble’s logo printed on it, along with a portrait of one of its users.

Bumble is trying to take over the city, and it has enlisted its users to do so.

The company’s latest ad campaign, which is called #FindThemOnBumble and reportedly cost several million dollars to execute, features 112 people whom the company has deemed its “most inspiring users” in New York.

Bumble is by no means the first company to use “real people” — meaning not models or paid actors — to advertise its product. Chevy is known for its bizarre commercials in which real people ooh and ahh over sensible family vehicles and the many industry awards those vehicles have received. Dove’s “real beauty” commercials, which have been around for more than a decade now, “always feature real women, never models,” according to the company.

In Bumble’s case, though, some of the real people featured in the ad also happen to be actors and models — and they’re ultimately the company’s real product. In an interview, Bumble’s chief brand officer Alex Williamson told me that the company scouted people for the campaign through “in-app initiatives where people could submit themselves or their friends for consideration.”

“Thousands” of people applied, Williamson said, though she declined to specify how many thousands. The company also reached out to people it had worked with in the past.

A selection of portraits from the #FindThemOnBumble campaign.
A selection of portraits from the #FindThemOnBumble campaign.

“We looked at a lot of different ways to showcase the people on our platform, because we realized that no matter how many product updates we do — we can make the best product in the world — our product is really our people,” Williamson told me. “It’s the people that you have the opportunity to meet, because those people can change your life in so many ways.”

While perusing #FindThemOnBumble’s Instagram account, I realized that the people featured in the campaign may be real people — real Bumble users — but they aren’t exactly ordinary. (I guess this is implied by the “most inspiring” moniker, but still.) The Bumble users featured in the campaign included a slew of models, a handful of actors and personal trainers, a professional ballerina, and the founders of several companies, including SoulCycle, Sweetgreen, By Chloe, and Refinery29. These are real New Yorkers, sure, but they’re not exactly the people I see on the street every day. Maybe that’s the point.

Influencers are people too!

Zab Johnson, the executive director and senior fellow at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the Wharton School, told me she was similarly confused by the campaign’s verbiage. Were these real, randomly selected New Yorkers? Were they a handpicked bunch of attractive, interesting, dynamic Bumble users?

“On one level, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They are, in fact, using real people instead of celebrities. And they are people who, I would believe, are actually using the platform. I think it fits into this new concept of influencers, which isn’t really a different take on celebrity. It’s kind of the same, except it’s supposed to have a more authentic feel to it” than celebrity marketing.

If the authenticity feels, well, authentic, then the campaign will succeed. But brands can seem untrustworthy when the “real people” they use to advertise a product don’t seem to be in it for the right reasons, much like a Bachelor contestant who’s really there for the opportunity to hawk detox tea on Instagram.

In July, Dior advertised the return of its signature saddle bag by giving free bags to dozens of influencers, most of whom posted photos of themselves posing with the (largely undisclosed) #sponcon within a few hours of each other. Fashion consultant Dina Fierro told Fashionista that the campaign may have actually turned off potential customers. “When you’re doing influencer marketing at-scale as a luxury brand, you’re risking alienating a lot of your core consumers,” Fierro said at the time. “People who are buying high-value products from the house of Dior, I think they could see this kind of marketing and be repelled by it.”

The most insidious thing about the Dior saddle bag campaign may have been the faux-authenticity of it, the sheer audacity of recruiting influencers to gush about a bag they received for free. Bumble’s ad campaign, in contrast, feels a lot more authentic — partially because you know it’s an ad in the first place. But it also feels a little dishonest. Can you really find these people on Bumble? And if you can, are they the exception and not the rule?

What makes a person “real”?

Curious as to whether I could actually #FindThemOnBumble, I downloaded the app and swiped on Bumble Bizz — its networking side, where I assumed most of these people would be — for about an hour. I found two of the people featured in the “Most Inspiring” campaign, as well as a bunch of venture capitalists, people looking for venture capital (I hope they found each other), a few models, some photographers, and one drug dealer. (“Edibles,” his bio stated, “come in brownie, chocolate chip square, fudge, cheese cake, banana pudding, cinnamon rolls.”)

These are real people. The people in Bumble’s campaign are real too. But there’s a gulf between them.

Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at Wharton, told me advertisers often use real people to sell products because, frankly, people like people who are like them. “One principle which relates to this is homophily; it means liking people who are similar to you,” she said. “It’s kind of obvious and intuitive, but pretty powerful.”

Whether using “real people” to advertise a product actually works depends on how aspirational the product is, Kahn explained. It worked for Dove — everyone uses soap, after all — but it wouldn’t necessarily work for a luxury brand like Burberry. “I remember when Burberry first allowed people to upload pictures of themselves on their trench coats on their website,” Kahn said. “They were one of the few people who did that, that notion of co-creation. But it wasn’t that just anybody was allowed to upload those pictures.”

Bumble’s latest campaign has a similar mindset behind it. Yes, these are real Bumble users — if you’re lucky enough, you may even #FindThemOnTheApp! — but they’re far from average. According to Johnson, the campaign is an attempt to give non-Bumble users a glimpse into the diverse, interesting world they could be part of — if they sign up for Bumble, that is.

“When I think about the campaign as a whole, they’re definitely catering to this idea of it being a city identity; they’re building an image on the heterogeneity of New York City,” Johnson explained. (Bumble said it will roll out a similar campaign in Los Angeles soon, and in other cities eventually.)

In other words, the campaign is aspirational but not too aspirational. “It’s promoting this idea that you could be one of these people,” said Johnson. “The social comparison isn’t ‘I don’t meet up to these standards,’ but ‘I could be that.’”

Real people, real user data

While Bumble chose to highlight its best and brightest users, other digital-first companies are happy to monetize their data — often without their consent.

Spotify’s “Thanks 2016” campaign turned user data into billboards that went up in 14 countries, including the US, Argentina, Denmark, and the Philippines. “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day — what did you do?” one billboard read. “Dear 3,749 people who streamed ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ the day of the Brexit vote, hang in there,” read another. Some people found the campaign cute and funny — others viewed it as a “creepy, voyeuristic” reminder that every time you log on to an app like Spotify, you’re signing away your privacy rights.

Last December, Netflix was called out for tweeting about the “53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince,” a movie I have never heard of, “every day for the past 18 days.”

Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, suggested that reporters should ask the company how many employees have access to users’ viewing habits and whether there are any controls on how this data can be accessed.

Seamless’s “Special Instructions” video series similarly showcased the obnoxious things users can request — and possibly have requested — in the “special instructions” section of their online order. Special instruction #396103, submitted by “Olivia,” asked an unnamed restaurant to “Please use only free range grass fed organically pampered chickens who listen to opera in their coops.” Special Instruction #175960, submitted by “Charlie,” asked an overworked delivery guy to “Please draw a whale on the bag.”

More recently, plastered several subway stations with ads featuring still-life images of the things Real New Yorkers ordered online. One woman, whose full name and neighborhood were listed, ordered a salmon and red lipstick. A man — Mike, from Tribeca, who it turns out is a employee — ordered chocolate chip cookie dough and a safety razor.

A semi-vandalized ad on the J train in New York City.
Gaby Del Valle/Vox

Were these real special instructions written by real Seamless users and real online orders made by real customers, or were they the brainchild of some ad company? It doesn’t really matter; by using names, both companies are implying that real people use the service — and, more importantly, that they know what you order and how you order it.

“The overarching premise of anybody in the last decade or so that’s using ‘real people’ is that they’re trying to demonstrate that their brand is a real thing endorsed by real people, not just people who are untouchable or unreachable,” Johnson explained. “I bet you anything that people seeing the Spotify ads know those are authentic users, but maybe that’s broken some trust. In this time, with the fragility of this relationship between brands and people — especially in the trust domain — I think that’s pretty dicey to do.”

The same concept applies to the Seamless and ads — you know these companies have your data, but do you really want them to remind you? (Seamless and Spotify didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding these ads; declined to comment.)

A fashion blogger or influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers and thousands to spend on a new saddle bag is, theoretically, an ideal customer for Dior. But that doesn’t make their endorsement of the product believable, especially when it’s done through such a coordinated effort. Similarly, a woman who founded and owns her own business may be the kind of person looking to network on Bumble Bizz, but she probably isn’t the typical user.

Models are real people, and influencers are real people, but they’re not people like you and me. And when it comes to advertising, believability makes all the difference.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Zab Johnson as a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business; she is the executive director and senior fellow at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the Wharton School.