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“Real People” Commercials Are the Worst Thing on TV

Your friends, neighbors, and coworkers are trying to sell you trash

Chevy/Ringer illustration
Chevy/Ringer illustration

Commercials are annoying. They are always going to be annoying. This, after all, is their job. They will sparkle and chatter and jingle and movie-voice and yell and false-whisper and Samuel L. Jackson and sad-puppy ad infinitum in the hope of annoying you so thoroughly that the next time you want, say, a cheeseburger, you reach into the memories pocket of your brain and find a clutch of Sonic-shaped eggs there. This is how it goes. Brands try to get you to buy their products, the scorpion stings the frog, and may God bless the United States of America.

But Christ almighty, the tidal wave of “real people” selling things on TV is a toxic shitpile.

If you have the misfortune of possessing both cable and eyeballs, you are more than likely familiar with the phenomenon. The gist is that companies have a product … they present that product to a group of what we are told is Real People … and the Real People love it!!! They love it so much. They can’t believe how much they love it. They gasp and hug each other and are shocked — shocked — by the extreme quality of the product and by the remarkable fidelity/generosity/product-making prowess of the brand that has brought them to see it.

As for these Real People: They are cheery but folksy, stylish but not too stylish, and attractive but maybe they haven’t been to the gym in a while. They include, usually, a token bald person and a token minority; their BMI is solidly between 24 and 26. They seem, basically, nice.

How did the Real People get there? you might ask. Maybe they are part of a focus group; maybe they have been stopped on the street; maybe they are filmed via hidden camera. They don’t mind. They were just going about their day — cleaning out the gutters; going in for their smog check; knitting booties — when suddenly a brand sailed in from the heavens.

Chevrolet is perhaps the most notorious offender, staging a two-year campaign of ostensible focus groups that portray the shock, awe, and good-naturedness of human beings encountering their automobiles, all prefaced with the message, “REAL PEOPLE. NOT ACTORS.” (The campaign is actually called “Real People, Not Actors”; GM says that the participants really are focus-group members, and any actual actors in the mix are simply a product of shooting in Los Angeles.) “We want to make people feel like, hey, this isn’t just us telling you,” Steve Majoros, Chevrolet’s director of marketing, told The Atlantic in August. “This is your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, people just like you.”

Just like you! They are exactly like you. What other way would you have answered a request to sum up the sedan you were crammed into with a bunch of strangers except as one of the Real People did: “Incredible! Amazing! I can’t use one word!”

Let me just say: I get it. If a brand is going to give you (a) money, (b) the ability to post a shampoo ad on your Facebook wall and caption it My small-screen debut :o), or (c) both — well, shit, take the money/likes and run. Buy yourself something nice, like superior shampoo.

But there is something sinister happening here as our countrymen are rounded up and asked to extol the virtues of hatchbacks and buy-one-suit-get-three-suits-plus-four-ties-for-free deals. These ads break the fourth wall, crawling into living rooms like something out of The Ring to pry the phone out of your hand and ask if you know who’s managing your money. It’s sponsored content for the people, a marketing shadow world where everybody is working for somebody and no one can be sure of anyone’s motivations. What’s real? Who is an actor? If I’m being performatively enthusiastic — if my smile is 10 percent bigger because there’s a camera nearby — am I lying? Is the mailman recommending a coffee place because he likes it or because he gets commissions? Must we hasten our descent into the inevitable Black Mirror future?

Anyway: If the most you can hope for in a commercial is some brief moment of entertainment, these ads — which are, with their increasing ubiquity, more or less interchangeable — fail. We’re left instead with the creeping sensation of being lied to by our peers, or at least by that nice lady who looks like your middle school librarian.