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Why actors in TV commercials look so familiar

For actors in ads, relatability is everything. And that’s why you see the same faces again and again.

You might see the same actor in many different TV ads.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

She’s a white woman in her 30s standing in a kitchen that’s bougie (but not obnoxiously so). “My diet?” she says to the person on the other end of the phone. “Well, yesterday I had an apple turnover. Mmhmm. I know, it’s sorta my weakness. I always keep it in the house.”

Cut to her husband rummaging furiously through the refrigerator in an attempt to find said apple turnover. But it’s not an actual apple turnover she’s talking about. It’s yogurt. The woman, meanwhile, might just look familiar. At first glance, she could be your friend or your cousin or your cousin’s friend or your friend’s cousin, but more likely, it’s that she’s a veteran actor and comedian who’s been in more than 50 commercials. Her name is Andrea Rosen, and her spot from the mid-2000s remains one of Yoplait’s most memorable and omnipresent marketing efforts.

Rosen’s face has sold everything from to the New York Lottery, Staples office supplies, car insurance, and a steak restaurant chain. “I would never go on a tampon commercial because they always wanted models,” she laughs.

Yet few brands seem to be interested in models at all. For decades, one of the main tenets of commercials has been casting “relatable”-looking people. Relatable is desirable; so relatable that you look like a famously relatable celebrity — a Jonah Hill type, a Tina Fey vibe — is even better. And this leads to seeing some of the same actors again and again.

The drive for relatability isn’t particularly new: Nobody could accuse commercial character actors like Mr. Whipple, the Snapple Lady, or the “spicy meatball” couple of selling unattainable standards. But it has been further codified by the rise in advertisements starring real people — or at least professional actors and models who can reasonably pass as real people. This is partially thanks to the democratization of who gets to be in front of the camera, now that a huge portion of Americans have grown up with cameras and social media networks like YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch on which to share videos of themselves.

Orlee Tatarka, an executive producer at Wieden + Kennedy, one of the world’s top advertising agencies, explains: “Everyone has phones; everyone has cameras; everyone’s used to being in the spotlight. It gives a bigger talent pool of people who are comfortable in front of the camera. We get a lot more people who are coming to these casting sessions, and clients are more open to [them].”

“I think people are more open to relatable, empathetic people overall,” she adds.

She nods to the increasingly fluid barriers between the worlds of advertising and entertainment. As commercials have become more like the films and television programs we pay to watch, they’ve gotten less cheesy.

Plus, advertising isn’t limited to commercials anymore. Whether it’s experiential advertising, sponsored content, or social media campaigns, the lines between life and marketing have blurred. “We all grew up with a certain [idea of] what you’re supposed to act like in a commercial,” Tatarka says. “There’s the announcer voice, and then this is the commercial. Because content and advertising and entertainment are all mixing together so much more, what that looks like has widened, so when actors come in for auditions, I find you get more of their authentic selves.”

Commercial actor and acting coach Bill Coelius.
Bill Coelius

The push to make commercials look more like everyday life rather than a high-gloss, sexed-up fantasy often starts with the people who end up getting cast. And for a certain swath of actors who look just enough like normies for us to relate to them, but who also can, y’know, act, it’s a pretty good time to be in the commercial business.

Bill Coelius, who has more than 50 national commercials under his belt, says he looks like “every white guy on the couch,” but it’s also what’s helped him succeed. He’s been a benefactor of the uptick in interest in casting “real people” or actors who can convincingly play them. “It’s my understanding that these exist because we stole something from British television about two decades ago called reality TV,” he says. “Because of that, advertisers started to hire real people for their commercials.”

The problem, though, is that real people can’t memorize their lines or deliver them well, which is where Coelius comes in. Aside from acting in commercials, he also teaches a class to aspiring commercial actors in which the main idea is that actors should provide a service.

“The advertisers, the production company, they have no idea if the commercial is going to work until it runs, and that anxiety is palpable in the audition room,” he says. “When we as actors meet that anxiety with anxiety, there’s no way that we’re going to get hired. What I feel has really helped me is asking the question internally, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ Because these poor folks are terrified. People’s jobs are on the line. We’ll always get another audition, [but] these guys may never work for [X] product again depending on how this spot goes.”

And sometimes, what the advertisers want is a face who resembles that of another person in the zeitgeist. Bill Parks, a tall, bearded redhead perhaps best known for his roles in Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” ads, says the types of roles he auditions for tend to correlate to the famous faces du jour. “It’ll go through ebbs and flows and be like, ‘Seth Rogen type’ or ‘Zach Galifianakis type.’ Whoever the famous schlubby celebrity of the week is.”

Andrea Rosen, when she was just starting her career, says she would often get sent for roles described as a “Janeane Garofalo type,” which was often just a code word for “funny.” “I was always going out for funny stuff, so I would just do it my way,” she says. “I would change dialogue sometimes if I felt like I could, and I would just make it as true to myself as I could, even though I was selling detergent.”

Even when brands say they want realism and authenticity, they’re still after a pretty narrow definition of the terms. When Bumble, for instance, cast 112 real people for its #FindThemOnBumble campaign in New York City, it didn’t exactly shine a spotlight on its most typical users. “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,” wrote Vox’s Gaby Del Valle at the time. “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.”

Will the rise of ads featuring influencers instead of actors make dinosaurs of professionals like Coelius, Rosen, and Parks? Probably not. “It’s pretty rare you’re gonna see somebody on TV that’s not an actor,” says Coelius, laughing. (Those Chevy commercials, however, do indeed appear to be made up of random passersby.)

What is changing is that commercial actors now have to pretend to be even more like real people in the audition room. When advertisers are looking for authenticity, they’ll often begin by asking something like, “Tell us a little bit about yourself” — one of the most dreaded questions in both interviews and auditions. That’s what happened when Coelius went up for a role in a commercial for a national bookstore chain.

“All they’re doing was just looking for the vibe of someone that would best represent their company,” he says. “It was, ‘Would we want this person to work at our store?’”

Being a teacher of commercial acting, however, Coelius was prepared with a concise, relatable story, and walked out with a gig worth $20,000. Though that particular audition question may be annoying, it’s a good time to be an actor who can answer it well.

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