If you are like most qualitative advertising-copy researchers I know, you show respondents storyboards, animatic or close-to-finished ads using actual actors. Sound right? When we do get to expose real people, they are selected actors who have responded to a casting call. The choice of which actors are used is made by advertising professionals based on their informed judgments of who would work best for the brand and message.

Then, we are often asked to pose a number of typical questions (requiring over-thinking it, since respondents in real life would never spend this much time with an ad. But that is a topic for another article.):

  • Initial thoughts and feelings?
  • How compelling it is to take some action?
  • Main benefit/main point (depending on the agency and its point of view) about  the product?
  • Other benefits?
  • Possible drawbacks?
  • Believability?
  • Confusion — anything hard to understand?
  • Likes/dislikes about the visuals?
  • User imagery?
  • Brand imagery?
  • Possible improvements?

That makes sense. Right?

Maybe. What if we could use consumer reactions to help agencies choose more-compelling spokespersons for television campaigns?

Not surprisingly, the people featured in advertising play a critical role in the success of any TV campaign. While ad agencies do a great job of casting, some progressive companies have realized that the keen perceptions and emotional reactions of their customers go far in selecting compelling protagonists for their brands.

Research has shown that the most convincing characters not only deliver the message adequately, but that they also resonate with consumers — i.e., they are likable and credible from the standpoint of being able to talk about the problem and solution offered. More importantly, the most compelling actors deliver their message with an authentic emotional impact that inspires viewers to ACTION.


Likeability, according to Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, is one of the key pillars of getting someone to say, “Yes!” People are ready to be persuaded by people they like. We don’t buy products: we  buy relationships!

It makes sense. We are more inclined to listen to people we like, as well as to agree with them. People we like can persuade us of their point of view. Our friends, for example, have a major impact on our views of the world. We can be swayed by their opinions.

So, one key variable to measure the appeal of a given actor is likeability. But, what makes an actor in a commercial likeable?

Eye Contact

We have always heard that “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” Consumers do or do not make emotional connections with the protagonist in an ad, based on what they read in the protagonist’s eyes. Eye contact is an important way to emotionally connect with another. Generally speaking, the longer the eye contact, the greater the intimacy. In casting research, actors who maintain sustained eye contact with the camera are judged to be more likeable than those who look away. The more they look away, the less likeable they become. And if they look down and away, they are judged as sly and untrustworthy, like a “sleazy used-car salesman.”

Pupils contract when people are engaged with each other. Pupils enlarge when people retreat into self. Were you ever in a discussion with someone looking straight at you who seemed like he (or she) just wasn’t there? That’s because he wasn’t. Without realizing it, you were picking up the fact that his pupils had dilated but that he was off in his own thoughts. We have learned that it is polite to look at another person while talking to him. People compensate and fool themselves into thinking that they are communicating interest by looking at the other person, even though they may not really be interested or engaged. They do this by unconsciously dilating their pupils, while their eyes are aimed at the other. In casting research, respondents are keen to pick up on this vacuous eye contact.

By and large, respondents characterize highquality eye contact as “looking at,” “looking into” or “connecting with” the viewer, whereas low-quality, less-persuasive eye contact is perceived as “looking through” the viewer or, even worse, as a “vacant stare” (other words used to describe this are “soulless” and “empty”).

Some respondents are able to link the perception of eye-contact quality to the level of focus in the pupils. A blank, empty, soulless stare is associated with more dilation (less focus), whereas more constricted and tightened pupil focus is associated with a positive emotional connection.

And the longer the eye contact, the more  self-esteem a person is perceived to have. The more self-esteem, the more likely he or she is  to persuade others. Here’s an excerpt from a report speaking to likeability. “Sue” was a highly likable character who seemed warm, fun and genuine. With her natural, unaffected movements and delivery, she came across as being a regular person, and thus, she was easy to relate to:

  • “I like the way she looked at me straight It was like we were having a real conversation.”
  • “She was pleasant; I could relate to her. Her presenting seemed more real, and she was more likeable. I was more interested in her presentation. I guess I can look at somebody, and they can turn me right off.”
  • “Likable, warm personality. She was jazzy. I like that.”
  • “She seemed to be believable yet had a sense of humor about it. She was very natural in the way she spoke and her demeanor. I would find her to be a colleague.”


Believability is related to likeability in terms of eye contact. When viewers make the liking connection, they are more apt to find the character believable. Other factors also affect credibility. Believable actors are described as natural, sincere and approachable. Participants recognize them as friends, neighbors or coworkers, people they would be comfortable with in everyday life. As such, they mirror the viewer from a category-appropriate point of view. So, how actors are dressed and coiffed signals whether or not they are people with whom the audience can relate. This is interesting, since actors reacting to a casting call often show up in “come as you are” garb. They read without props or costumes. If an actor can make the believability connection on his own merits, he probably is a strong contender.

In addition to making consistent direct eye contact with the camera, believable characters tend to use a minimum of hand and body gestures. Less believable actors are more likely to look away, shift their glances and demonstrate broad, exaggerated gestures. These are judged to be untrustworthy and merely acting. Rolling of the eyes is experienced as disrespectful and disingenuous.

Here’s an excerpt from a report speaking to believability and appropriateness to category. This protagonist was also very believable and convincing. Her direct eye contact with the camera made her seem open and honest, and her size, movements and expressions communicated that she could be a genuine sufferer:

  • “She seems like someone who went to her doctor and is taking the product herself. Her facial expressions were real, with good eye contact. She wasn’t just an actor.”
  • “You can tell if someone is lying. She would convince me. She seems very nice, probably very honest, clear, and she makes good eye contact.”
  • “Honest, believable; no doubt that she would tell the truth. Very approachable, very polite. Very nice person. I would definitely want to hear more from her.”
  • “The way she’s dressed, just rushed out to run an errand. I do that, and I’d be wearing something like that with my hair a little messy.”
  • “She looks like she could have high cholesterol. She’s not as trim as she could be, so she could still have it.”

Other clues of believability are more subtle. These include things like the subtle flaring of  the nostrils, slight tilting of the head and postural cues like leaning slightly forward, which communicate positively. Another way you know that you are on the right track is in listening to the quality of response from the interviewee. When emotionally engaged, via likeability and believability, respondents answer more quickly and with more detailed stories from their own perspective than those having a more intellectual (and thus less action-inducing) response. Eye contact, authenticity and persuasive emotional power are communicated differently when actors are in couples. So far, our discussion has focused on a solitary actor or actress reading a message directly into the camera. But what about when couples appear together? How are authenticity and emotional impact delivered then?

It turns out that while occasional eye contact through the eye of the camera is still important in these situations, much more important (particularly when the acting team is presented as a “couple”) is their ability to truly communicate that their “other” (fellow actor or actress) is the most important person in the interaction. They have to radiate “chemistry.”

This is demonstrated by turning their bodies towards each other and by reaching out to the other with glances, gentle touching and what appear to be genuine embraces. These behaviors seem to allow viewers to put themselves into the picture and identify with what they perceive to be loving relationships. Respondents can then identify with the problem and the emotions expressed about it, and they can feel concern, some sense of urgency and the relief and confidence of finding a good solution.

It is interesting to note that, in couples-casting research, outstanding stand-alone actors coupled with different “mates” may not perform as well as they do solo. (Hmmm. Sounds like an interesting commentary on the human condition to me!)

The same actor perceived as warm, appealing and believable with one actress, for example, may be perceived as too aggressive and irritable with another. Or a woman might seem to roll her eyes too much with one man, but appear loveable and credible with another.

Rolling of the eyes is interpreted as contempt, according to relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. Couples who demonstrate this behavior are highly likely to end up in a separation because of the disparaging affect on self-esteem and trust. (Note: Dr. Gottman has studied what he calls the "masters and disasters" of marriage. Ordinary people from the general public took part in longterm studies, and Dr. Gottman learned what makes marriages fail, what makes them succeed and what can make marriages a source of great meaning. By examining partners’ heart rates, facial expressions and how they talk about their relationship to each other and to other people, Dr. Gottman is able to predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which couples will make it and which will not. These findings have relevance for all communications.)

Similarly, respondents react more favorably and emotionally to couples that are well matched on looks, height, color coordination of their clothing and, most importantly, “authentic rapport.” If you have a variety of actors and actresses read together in different combinations and then show respondents a reel with all the various permutations, respondents will pick up on the mismatched couples. They may say something like, “This is obviously a first failed marriage,” and later, seeing the same man or woman with a “better match,” will describe them as a “second marriage… a much better choice!”

“He married the first one for her looks. She was a sorority girl, cheerleader and spoiled brat. He always felt like he had to keep up appearances. She wanted the security of the money. She started messing around on him and finally left for a bigger bank account. He was crushed at first. But now he is with his soul mate. You can tell by the way they are dressed, almost matching plaid shirts and jeans, low key, casual, comfortable. They look so comfortable together. They enjoy snuggling up in front of the TV with a beer. Look at how they look at each other with warmth. They beam at each other.”

What winning couples have in common is a communicated “chemistry.” They look like they truly care about each other, and they show support for each other. Their warmth and touch of humor in their delivery are seen as natural and compelling. Well-matched couples seem to glow and come alive with genuine rapport in each other’s presence. In hearing consumers’ thoughts about the reel, one creative director mused, “You know, they did seem to have a little flirtation going. It was palpable.”


The keys to a compelling casting decision are likeability, believability and authenticity as demonstrated via open eye contact, avoidance of exaggerated gestures and the ability to be present with the camera as if talking to another real human being.

The intangible something, the connection to the advertisement’s targeted audience, clearly rests on what I mentioned earlier: relationship. Your ad, to be most effective, should not “feel” like selling, so much as telling a story, one that the audience will buy into on a basic, emotional, human level. Finding the right people to tell your brand’s story and make it irresistible is like casting a motion picture, TV show or theatrical production: the right actor(s) can make the end product desirable in the right  way for the right reasons, and the wrong ones can have the opposite effect. Who better to assess this precious connection than the person who is an integral part of this relationship — your consumer.



The Livingston Group for Marketing •Londonderry, NH • sharonl@tlgonline.com

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