Do spokespeople have no reason to live?

According to Dave Scholz, Toronto-based VP of Leger Marketing, which is headquartered in Montreal, having a real or fictitious persona push your brand in a commercial is 'still a very positive way of getting your message across.'

According to Dave Scholz, Toronto-based VP of Leger Marketing, which is headquartered in Montreal, having a real or fictitious persona push your brand in a commercial is ‘still a very positive way of getting your message across.’

But Scholz, who has conducted some yet-to-be published research on the topic, says consumers are becoming more skeptical of spokespeople, mainly due to recent instances where they have flogged products on TV talk shows, without ever admitting they are paid representatives. (For instance, actress Kathleen Turner discussed her struggle with arthritis on Good Morning America recently; she mentioned a Web site that is sponsored by Amgen and Wyeth, two pharmaceutical companies which market an arthritis drug. Turner is a paid spokesperson for both firms.)

But what of the comical, made-up eccentrics, like the Maytag Repairman and the Man from Glad? Scholz says they aren’t necessarily as credible as authentic folk. ‘Consumers are conscious that it’s an advertising creation,’ he explains, pointing to The Building Box’s foam mascot Hammer Head as an example. ‘Here, the spokescharacter comes into play as an attention-grabber.’

That seems to be the raison d’être of the Man from Glad, who was revitalized in Canada three years ago by Toronto-based packaged goods manufacturer Clorox and its AOR Palmer Jarvis DDB; the agency describes him as ‘part Naked Gun, part James Bond.’

‘When we took over the business [from First Brands Corporation, which Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox acquired in 1999], we were wondering whether we should keep him or not,’ recalls Jun Yuan, brand manager for Glad’s food protection division in Canada. ‘But consumers really liked him. They thought he represented cleanliness and he was compared to some famous brand icons, like the Maytag Repairman.’

This time around, the talking head in the impeccable white suit comes across as ‘more modern’ both in appearance and character, says Yuan. For instance, a new spot depicts Vancouver actor Dale Wilson, who has played the Man from Glad for three years, in the kitchen wrapping sandwiches when a boy walks in and quickly calls for his mom; he is understandably a bit freaked out by the fact there is a stranger in his home. ‘It’s the first time [the Man from Glad] has been in a situation where he doesn’t know how to handle it,’ says Yuan. ‘That softens him a bit.’

In August, Wilson also made his first significant public outing at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where consumers were able to observe him in the flesh, expertly wrapping sandwiches. They also had the opportunity to win Glad products by spinning a wheel. ‘He’s more interactive with ordinary people – it’s important for consumers to see him,’ says Yuan, who admits there are some risks involved with the Man.

‘You need to be careful about the tone and style of creative so he doesn’t look silly.’

So far, the snow-white haired icon hasn’t been too much for Canadians. Since airing the commercials, Glad has become the leader in its category. However, Americans didn’t take to the Man as much so he wasn’t reintroduced south of the border.

Meanwhile, Maytag continues to turn the spotlight on The Apprentice, in a new campaign for its Jetclean II dishwasher. The ad, from Chicago-based Leo Burnett, has actor Gordon Jump, (a.k.a. WKRP’s Mr. Carlson) who plays the Repairman, take a secondary role as his sidekick hunts across the U.S. for odd-shaped pots and pans to place in the dishwasher. In the end, the elder repairman notices his counterpart’s actions. ‘Dishes again?’ he asks. ‘You should get out more.’ Like Glad, Maytag has also witnessed positive results lately; in its second quarter, the Newton, Iowa-based appliance firm saw sales boost 23% to US$1.1 billion.

Interestingly, the new guy joined Jump in early 2001, after company research suggested consumers had become unimpressed with Ol’ Lonely – the icon just turned 35 years old – because of his passiveness.

In Quebec, one thing you couldn’t call Bell Canada’s 10-year-old phenom, Monsieur B, is passive; comedian Benoît Brière has aired in 100+ commercials for the company and has played 50-odd characters along the way. The creative, from Montreal-based Cossette Communication-Marketing, has also captured many awards, including a Coq d’Or for Brière’s exceptional work as a spokesperson from Publicité Club de Montréal in May.

In the latest instalment for Bell, Brière plays an Italian son who attempts to cook spaghetti sauce to impress his mother (Brière plays her part too). He goes online, chats on his cellphone with a friend for advice, and studies a cooking show on TV to perfect his recipe, which is ghastly judging by his mom’s expression, but she feigns admiration anyway.

‘Monsieur B has evolved with time, and the personality of each character is different,’ says Lucie Bilodeau, director of brand-communication for Bell, who says there are no plans to replace Brière. Surveys are conducted regularly to ensure the ads still resonate, and while Bilodeau won’t cite numbers, she suggests the actor’s awareness levels are high. ‘When a person from Quebec watches TV and a spot comes on, they recognize when it’s Bell right away. Monsieur B was developed to simplify [our message] to consumers with language, sensitivity and humour.’

As these brands continue to nurture their loveable, fictitious beings, others are using their genuine employees to connect with the current back-to-basics mind-set of consumers (see story, pg 1). What’s most effective? Strategy asked four pundits to weigh in on the many faces of advertising.

Pankaj Aggarwal, assistant professor of marketing

Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

People relate to brands [like] they relate to human beings in a social context. They form relationships.

These characters, whether real or animated, help strengthen that human-like transformation of brands and help build a one-on-one connection with consumers. If consumers think of the brand as a friend, they would respond very differently than if they think of a brand as a business partner.

[For example] if the relationship is viewed as a friendship, consumers wouldn’t want to be charged a fee for an extra service. In a friendship, consumers don’t like discount coupons. They prefer a little token of appreciation, like a gift or a letter. But in an exchange relationship, discounts are what people like. That may have implications on consumer promotions…and marketers need to take [the relationship] through the entire spectrum. They can’t say suddenly, ‘I’m your friend, and by the way, pay me money.’

Whether a spokesperson is [an ordinary] person, a CEO or a character, he/she truly has to represent the values of the brand. With a real person, there are issues like what happens when the person passes on, or if they decide to do an ad for another company. That’s an issue that oftentimes restricts companies because brands are forever.

Real people have to be exactly right for the brand and making them exactly right is so much tougher because humans are humans. How do you put all the values of the brand into one person?

Janet Kestin, CD, Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto

I think there are great made-up characters and weak ones. I think Jack of [American fast food chain] Jack in the Box is a great made-up character. He says what everyone else is thinking – he’s funny, he’s wicked, and he’s a bit of a bad boy. There’s something quite appealing about that. I think it’s hard to make the Man from Glad have appeal. It doesn’t matter what they do. He’s not interesting.

But nobody is going to like anybody all the time, and that’s a risk of using one of these guys. They are somewhat polarizing, but overall they are uninteresting. There’s a fear of offending, and advertisers don’t develop those characters into people. They leave them empty, so you can put your own interpretation on them as a viewer.

Using real people is generally a bad idea. It’s a funny irony that real people on screen seem less real and credible. They aren’t comfortable. Or it seems fake, because you have to feed them what to say. The same would be true of actors – I think you should never use them as spokespeople. Whether a cartoon, real person, or actor – if they aren’t riveting to listen to, you probably shouldn’t do it.

Daniel Charron, CD, Republik, Montreal

Spokespeople have been used much too often here in Quebec. It’s a simple solution. We find [it] boring. If the spokesperson doesn’t have any logical reason to be there, it’s not pertinent to the product.

One campaign for Toyota in Quebec uses [Quebecois actress] Maxime Roy. It’s using a well-known face to promote a car. I don’t see why. Toyota makes great cars, and doesn’t need a well-known face to push [them].

With Monsieur B for Bell Canada, I think they had something good going on for many years, but for the past year-and-a-half, I think he’s become bigger than the client. I’m wondering what the message is at the end of the commercials.

I think there’s a risk when the character becomes a form of entertainment and not advertising. That’s what Monsieur B has become – more of an entertainer than a spokesperson for the product.

There’s one campaign I love presently, which uses real people. The Apple Switch spots [from American agency TBWAChiatDay] are perfect. They are not overproduced, and the language is simple and direct. It’s people next door talking the way real people talk – about their problems. Some of them do look shy, but it’s part of the concept so it works. Each Apple-based solution is explained through these people.

Bruce Fraser, director of creative services

Glennie Stamnes Strategy, Vancouver

[Using employees] is a natural tactic used to [evoke] some kind of truth. If you do it right, you can get magic out of people who aren’t paid actors and it is so much truer than anything you can write.

On the spokesman side, like the Maytag Repairman and the Man from Glad, even though they look silly and dated, there’s a warmth of familiarity with the brand. However, with the new Man from Glad, where they’ve tried to bring some humour into it – that feels like a force. I think you’re playing with the brand heritage a little bit, which is a serious, sappy spokesperson.

The one that intrigues me is the ING man. He’s simply an incredibly well chosen and articulate, interesting person who presents their brand position. He has a wonderful accent, a wonderful character face and an amazingly disarming, earnest delivery. Even though it isn’t great creative, it is good branding. He just reflects the brand so well, love him or hate him. Plus, he’s very clear and engaging.

[To find a spokesperson that works] you have to search for what is the soul of your brand. And that should point you in a direction – male or female; character or serious person. Then you have to do a lot of casting and a lot of clever writing to pull it off. But advertising and creative minds will always disagree violently about the use of spokespeople. It’s what works and what sells versus what’s called great creative and award-winning.