Is Reality Marketing the New Reality for Digital Media?

Remember The Real World? The ’90s MTV series is credited with creating reality TV. It tapped into our inherent longing to see what goes on with others behind the scenes, and allowed us to pull back the curtain and peek inside other people’s personal lives.

The reality TV craze found its way online long ago. Consumer-generated media puts the emphasis on the customer by delivering ad messaging from the consumer’s point of view. Campaigns like Bud Light’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial, “Up for Whatever,” combined all the impulsive energy of The Real World with a unique story no Millennial (and few others) could resist watching as it unfolded on TV and online.

If you track the rise in popularity of featuring consumers in campaigns, you’ll find it closely follows the rise in popularity of brand storytelling. Brands can share their history and their philosophy, but they must also tell the story of how they fit into consumers’ lives. Who better to play the protagonist in such a tale than the customer who buys and uses a company’s products?

It’s an approach that’s being employed by all manner of brands and across countless verticals. The Branines, a family of four from Oregon who found some degree of Internet fame by running an Etsy store and blog, recently became one of The Land of Nod’s “real families.” On the retailer’s site, consumers can shop furniture, bedding, and home décor items that represent each family’s individual aesthetic – shaped in part by The Land of Nod’s design team. Some families were picked because they won a contest that got them a redesigned room. Others are bloggers, like Sarah Kate Branine who needed a trendy home update.


In addition to features on The Land of Nod site, the real families are profiled in the brand’s email newsletters. Subscribers – and site users – can view photos of the families along with decorating tips based on rooms in their houses. Some of the families live in large homes, others in small city apartments. This variety allows the brand to offer content that’s sure to appeal to every kind of customer.

Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer brand has long featured families – its target audience – in ads, but in January of this year it launched a new spot starring the Rukavina family that does a good job not only of coming off as authentic, but also of highlighting the diversity present in many modern-day homes. The ad, which Adweek speculated could be “the most inclusive ad ever,” racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube and boosted the brand’s long-running “Everyday Effect” and #swiffereffect theme to new heights.

Brands have become so good at making their messaging appear genuine that consumers are often skeptical about the authenticity of “real-life” campaigns, but the Rukavina family is the real deal. The same can be said of Lee and Morty Kaufman, the real-world consumers who preceded them. They began to make their appearance in Swiffer ads last year and starred in a three-minute documentary online. They’ve even been profiled in The New York Times in a piece that only served to enhance the realism of Swiffer’s campaign. The key to the success of these Swiffer spots could be that they’re largely unscripted. There’s no question that the cast of characters is true, and that’s something consumers can relate to.

Taco Bell recently leveraged this brand of reality marketing in a way that allowed it to square off against the competition. The fast-food chain took on McDonald’s by seeking out 24 real-life consumers named Ronald McDonald and inviting them to taste items from its new breakfast menu. An extended, behind-the-scenes video called “Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast” has generated nearly 2.5 million views on YouTube.

The “reality marketing” trend seems to be growing the world over. In Britain, a real-life family is booking modeling jobs that put parents, children, and siblings together in ads. Recently, Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara appeared with her real-life family in a series of Head & Shoulders spots. “I use it. My whole world uses it,” the actress said as her relatives smiled beside her.

It’s difficult to imagine a strategy better suited to brand storytelling than asking real people to share personal stories that involve marketable products. The stars of such campaigns often go on to become brand advocates, while the consumers who see them feel better able to relate to the items being pitched. Most TV viewers will tell you reality TV isn’t as real as it looks, and they’d probably say the same about real people in ads. Still, authenticity strikes a chord. Where online video and brand storytelling is concerned, it looks to be the new marketing reality.

Homepage image via Shutterstock.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.