Escapism has long been a popular and powerful means of successful advertising – products are often presented to the viewer through the lens of fantastical, idealised scenarios. Such adverts position their products as the solution to life’s problems, but modern audiences are becoming increasingly fatigued by escapist ads in an age of war and inflation.
In times of instability – realism has always had a resurgence. Audiences want to relate to what they see on screen, and so increasingly, brands are portraying themselves as down to earth, people centred – as if they ‘get it’.
This trend can be seen in Elliot Harris’ recent Vanish advert, which was the winner of Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award. The ad follows a day in the life of Ash, a teenager who lives with autism. Ash refuses to go to school unless she’s wearing her favourite hoodie – and the ad stresses how certain items of clothing can be of great comfort to autistic people. The ad closes with text on screen: ‘for Ash and many autistic people, familiar clothing can be a lifeline’.
Vanish is a product that makes clothes last longer – and this unique advert shows this as an invaluable trait, especially for those living with autism. Following the overwhelmingly positive response the ad received, Elliot Harris – creative partner at Havas London - commented that "viewers want to be made to feel like people, not consumers, by advertising”. He goes on to say they’ve “never seen a response like the one to this ad”, and that “people have been phoning in to thank us for showing the world how autism affects their family life every day.”
Harris spoke about the brief from Channel 4 – which instructed entrants to focus on portrayal and representation. “‘Portrayal’ means getting it right, while ‘representation’ means giving viewers a sense that they could be there,” he explains. “If we couldn ’t get those two things right, people would wonder why on earth we were talking about autism and a stain remover.”
The actor playing Ash in the advert lives with autism in real life – and so the portrayal of autism in the advert has a genuine realism. The overwhelmingly positive response to the ad shows that this approach has clearly resonated with Vanish’s audience.
The idea of injecting a large element of realism into advertising isn’t new, of course. Rachel Cook, MD of ThreeTenSeven (formerly Thompson) points out that the sector was doing this nearly 20years ago when skincare brand Dove started featuring ordinary women in its ads, rather than relying on professional models.
“It’s just taken a long time for other brands to pluck up the guts to get more ‘real’,” Cook says. “Instead of merely flogging cellulite cream and washing powder, they’re aligning themselves with social causes because it’s been proven by everyone from McKinsey to Mattel that consumers are more likely to choose and champion a brand that wears its purpose on its sleeve. The creative approach is therefore about finding a sense of humanity and connection.”
She also believes that, in an era when people are becoming increasingly concerned about computer-generated material, consumers may be gaining a new appreciation for content that clearly features genuine human emotions.
“We’re not far from a time when entire ads could be AI-generated. But this is raising all sorts of interesting questions about originality, ethics and, of course, authenticity and humanness,” Cook says. “The more that we consumers are seeing ‘unreal’ stuff in other media, the more that we’re craving reality – especially from brands that are trying to sell us things.”
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