Overcast: The pitfalls of casting familiar faces

RPA Group Creative Director Jason Sperling was hanging out at the soccer fields at Los Angeles’ Pierce College when he thought he spotted an actor from one of his agency’s campaigns. He went up to him and asked, “Are you the Honda guy? “He said “No’,” said Sperling. “”I’m not the Honda guy, I’m the […]

RPA Group Creative Director Jason Sperling was hanging out at the soccer fields at Los Angeles’ Pierce College when he thought he spotted an actor from one of his agency’s campaigns. He went up to him and asked, “Are you the Honda guy? “He said “No’,” said Sperling. “”I’m not the Honda guy, I’m the Tampax guy.’”

Sperling could be forgiven for the mistake. The same actors are popping up more and more, shilling everything from toothpaste to cars, raising the potential to confuse consumers about which brand is being advertised. They might be so distracted trying to place the actor from another spot that they may not notice the brand being advertised – or worse, they may notice. “If an actor had irritable bowel syndrome in one spot, then how would it affect how I look at his other [commercial] for Del Taco?” said Sperling.

“If I’m going to go to [an actor] I’ve used before, it’s because I’m in trouble and I haven’t found the right one,” said Bryan Buckley, director at the Hungry Man production company. “Years ago there were agencies that looked for a familiar face,” he said, adding that the move toward “real people casting” has curbed that trend.

“I try to steer away from faces I’ve seen before, and I freely admit it’s a little weird,” said O Positive director David Shane. “It’s not like anyone ever said, “Wait a minute: That dude can’t possibly be Forrest Gump; I saw him stranded on an island screaming at a volleyball six months ago.’”

So why does it happen? Chris Adams, exec creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, who used quirky actress Allyn Rachel for a Toyota Venza spot earlier this year has a few theories: Great actors are hard to find, callbacks will often happen all at once and it’s all the director’s responsibility.

Bob Zeinstra, the national manager for strategic planning and advertising for Toyota, said that actor exposure beyond the brand’s own spot can be both good and bad. Toyota used Rachel in mid-2011, he said, so “by the time she became more exposed during the following months, we were able to benefit from that in our mid-2012 advertising.”

Target, which used Melanie Paxson, an actress for many other brands, including Yoplait, Fiber One (both owned by General Mills) and Phillips Colon Health, declined to comment.

Directors and production houses are usually the ones working the most closely with the casting director, offering up a final list of candidates to the agency much later in the process. “Directors are often working on tons of spots at once,” said Eric Kallman, executive creative director at New York’s Barton F. Graf 9000.

Rachel’s popularity—over the spring and summer, she could be seen in national spots for Toyota, Walmart, eBay and Dish—probably had something to do with her director, Matt Aselton, who shot all of them. “It’s hard to find the awesome people,” he said. “And if I find them, I pretty much consider them part of the troupe.”

Aselton thinks people who always hunt for a new face are usually doing it for their ego. “People get some kind of self-satisfaction from being the first person to find someone,” he said.

One commercial actress who currently has national spots airing for Dr. Scholl’s, Pier One and Dunkin’ Donuts—and who asked that Ad Age not use her name—said casting directors have told her in the past that she is in too many things at once. She will go in for regular makeovers and dye jobs, trying to keep her look “fresh,” she said.

“People work a lot when they’re good,” said Lee Einhorn, creative director at Venables Bell & Partners, who created the eBay ad starring Rachel. “The fact that [Rachel] had a role or two in the year leading up to working with us was not a reason to not choose her.”

Casting director Francene Selkirk said everyone always wants someone new, but there isn’t always that much talent out there. “If someone has eight spots running, it’s hard to cast them.”

Sperling said agency folks need to watch a bit more TV. “We’re all guilty of fast-forwarding,” he said. “And actors don’t have to make it public what exactly they were in.” But still, timing is key. “If Tampax man tells me that I should drink Mountain Dew in two weeks, I wouldn’t buy it.”

This story originally appeared in Advertising Age.

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