I’ve always been enamored by real life stories. It’s how I got my start in filmmaking, working on documentaries. But when I shifted my career towards the advertising side of things, I wondered if there was any overlap between the two industries. Turns out there’s quite a lot.
The term is called social realism, and it actually started in the art world. The literal definition, “the realistic depiction in art of contemporary life, as a means of social or political comment,” most commonly referred to imagery such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Today, the term transcends all mediums of art, including video. In its most literal interpretation, documentary films would be considered social realism, because they portray a “real” story (I use “real” in quotation marks, because let’s not forget the famous, Catfish). Social realism has now made its way to advertising and is being used by brands to help sell their products or services.
My favorite example of social realism in advertising is the story of The Born Friends Family Portrait for Skype’s “Stay Together” campaign. Two girls born on opposite ends of the planet have the same, rare condition. The story first shows how their mothers, and then the girls, use Skype as a way to stay connected thousands of miles apart. As a bonus, Skype arranged for the two girls to finally meet in person after years of only communicating through their computer screens. It will definitely make your eyes a little misty, be sure to check it out.
This story is an effective form of marketing for a few reasons. If Skype had scripted and produced the story as fiction, it would have lost all authenticity. There’s also something so intriguing about a story like this, knowing that these individuals exist in real life and so does their story. And to be honest, you might even forget it’s for Skype, but it gets people feeling and spreading the word.
Now one has to wonder the benefit that a company, like Skype, has from a real-life campaign like “Stay Together.” Well, it all comes down to real-life stories. Storytelling sells. Take a look at this infographic that was part of a study done by Origin. In all instances, advertising that was paired with a personal story sold more, or at the very least led them to engage more than with the content, than with the ads that had no emotional element.
Some argue social realism is just a cheap and fast approach to market a product; a scrappy way for brands to pull at viewers’ heart strings. While others believe that doing away with the big celebrities and flashy commercials in a world largely inundated by video is an effective marketing approach. Quiet and simple stands out amongst all the noise. And for me, coming from the non-fiction realm, I tend to believe there’s a greater level of trust between the brand and the viewer when you hear a story, unscripted, from the source. Where the brand and their product or service is secondary to the story.
Though social realism certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all marketing approach, I do hope the trend of using real people and real stories in advertising continues. Selfishly, it gives me the chance to continue pursuing my passion for non-fiction storytelling, on a slightly different medium. And on a larger scale, it’s sharing others’ stories with the world and providing engaging marketing materials that resonate with viewers.