Are you faux real? Authenticity matters when it comes to casting

It's not about throwing a selection of skin colours together with little consideration of character.

Casting "real" people in advertising couldn’t have come sooner – even Gucci’s got with the programme – because there’s not much in this world that beats honest human storytelling. In a retail landscape that’s undergoing seismic change, brands that connect to community and culture by reflecting society and giving real people a voice will be the ones that survive. But, as with many things, getting the balance right can be tough.  

Festive dragons aside, advertising has become obsessed with representing it all at the same time. Age, body shape, ethnicity, (dis)ability and gender are the buzzwords on every casting brief, but in their overuse we’ve lost sight of why diverse campaigns exist: to connect brands with real people by holding a mirror up to the society and culture in which they live.

It’s not about throwing a disparate smorgasbord of skin colours together with little consideration of character – looking at you, Victoria’s Secret x Bluebella. Even one of the UK’s largest fashion retailers, which claims to be "Dressing the nation", falls victim; a bunch of glamorous, mostly famous women of different skin tones, oh and – tick! – one curvy girl. New York-based casting director Kevin Amato summed it up well: "It should never be a checklist – ‘Here’s one Spanish, one black, one transgender’… the one-of-each-please approach is tokenistic and has quickly become wallpaper." We’re no further along than what Gap and United Colors of Benetton so boldly achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. 

So where do we go from here? It’s on us as creatives and marketers to work hard at finding the sweet spot where diversity and authenticity co-exist. It’s time to go back to basics.

What is the brand narrative and who actually represents that message? Martin Parr’s BBC idents (pictured, above) and MullenLowe’s recent work for the NHS, "Men in nursing", are so on point: everyday people, shot in their world, telling their story – you can’t do anything but feel warmth towards those pieces of work. They’re genuine, authentic and utterly brilliant. No tick-boxing in sight.

On our journey to create diverse campaigns that feature "real" people, we have found four key things that our creatives, casting directors, producers and clients look to:

1 Cast for human stories, not appearance

Are you street-casting because you want authentic human storytelling in the work? Well, there’s your casting brief: people whose personal stories reflect the brand narrative. Being open-minded to whoever may match your brand message is the best way to avoid tokenism. Our producers and creatives spend days and days with casting director Camilla Arthur, meeting people and listening to their stories. What do they value? Do they have an interesting upbringing? What do they fight for? It may not be the fastest route to finding the right cast, but it’s the authentic route.

2 Collaborate 

Unlike working with models, casting "real" people should be seen as a collaboration. It takes a huge amount of effort from everyone involved to make these projects work. The more comfortable and in control a "real" person feels throughout the entire process, the more confident they will be on set. Collaboration goes right down to styling and hair and make-up: "Do you feel confident in that?" "As a wheelchair user, are you comfortable dressing in this?" "How would you say this in your own words?" It’s all about helping somebody be the best version of themselves.

3 Kindness means confidence 

Our agency culture is built on what we call "the kindness economy" – people, planet, profit (in that order). And this rings true when working with a "real" cast. Creating a shoot team who cares about people and makes those around them feel at ease is super-important. Other tricks we use are shooting with a closed set (much less scary) and playing music chosen by the cast to create an environment that feels familiar and relaxed. For Tu’s "All boobs welcome" lingerie campaign, our entire crew were women, from the director to the gaffer. It was an amazing, uplifting vibe, proven by the fact that our street-cast women were confidently pottering around in nothing but their bras and knickers. Even our art director got down to hers at one point and the only guy on set was the dude who cooked our lunch. How incredible. 

4 A rising tide lifts all boats

The rewarding thing about working with "real" people is that when the brand and cast are equally vested in the work, they rise together. If we create platforms for cast members to talk about what they're interested in, it allows the cast to become genuine ambassadors for the creative idea and the brand. And when your producers receive overwhelming thank yous from the cast, citing newfound self-confidence from a good shoot experience, you know you’re doing something right. 

If we get all of the above right, those little "gasp" moments when you see a campaign with "real" people will finally be gasps of joy, not sighs of disappointment.

Zara Ineson is creative director at Portas

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