The rise of gritty realism in advertising

Adverts depicting everyday scenarios that viewers can relate to as people first and consumers second seem to be gaining more traction than traditional escapist content. What’s behind this trend?
A family sits together watching an advertisement on TV

Throughout his long career in advertising, Elliot Harris has helped to create many commercials, but none has generated anything like the response achieved by the one that he worked on recently for a household cleaning product.

The ad depicts a day in the life of a family with two teenage daughters, one of whom is living with autism. Her parents go to great lengths to ensure that she attends school, only for her to want to go home after an accidental bump into another pupil. In search of some comforting stimulation there, she plays the drums loudly enough to rile her sister, who takes revenge by hiding her favourite hoodie, which their father has just treated with Vanish stain remover and laundered. Until this crucial item is back in her possession, she cannot face returning to school. 

The key message is that the brand, which is designed to make clothes last longer, understands how important certain garments can be to people with autism. 

No purchasing decision is ever made with the head. It’s always the heart

“We’ve never seen a response like the one to this ad,” says Harris, who is creative partner at Havas London. “People have been phoning in to thank us for showing the world how autism affects their family life every day.”

The campaign forms part of a wider marketing trend in which companies are trying to show that they are decent corporate citizens who truly understand the lives of consumers and the worlds they inhabit.

“People will always want good products, but they’re becoming increasingly concerned about how these are made and how the brands behind them operate,” Harris says. “At the same time, viewers want to be made to feel like people, not consumers, by advertising. It’s a clear message – brands ignore it at their peril.”

Diversity and inclusion in marketing

The idea for the ad originated from the Diversity in Advertising Award, an annual competition in which Channel 4 offers £1m of free commercial airtime to a campaign that embraces diversity. The 2022 award brief sought content that would “tackle the ongoing lack of authentic portrayal and representation of visible and non-visible disabilities”. 

The team at Havas London decided to work out how to do this with a stain remover. With help from the Ambitious About Autism charity, it learnt that people with the condition often become deeply attached to favourite garments. This was crucial, Harris reflects, because a brand must establish a proper connection with a cause before it can promote it with any kind of credibility. 

Lending the Vanish campaign further realism, the autistic schoolgirl featured in the campaign actually does have autism – and her on-screen relatives are members of her family. They even helped the commercial’s director, Tom Hooper (the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech, which centres on stammering), to piece together a typical day in their lives, informing his approach to the project. 

Harris notes that the brief from Channel 4 advised competitors to focus on both 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.”

Tapping into real values

The idea of injecting a large element of realism into advertising isn’t new, of course. Rachel Cook, MD of brand consultancy Thompson, points out that the sector was doing this nearly 20 years ago when skincare brand Dove started featuring ordinary women in its ads, rather than relying on professional models.

Viewers want to be made to feel like people, not consumers, by advertising

“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.”

Sign of the times – realism and recession

The increasing supply of – and demand for – content featuring the realities of everyday life is down to the fact that we’re living in troubled times. That’s the view of Mick Mahoney, creative partner at brand communication consultancy Harbour and former chief creative officer at Ogilvy. He believes that the emotions that brands try to evoke in their ads to encourage people to like them and their products are more important than ever.

“The most powerful way to reach people is through a recognisable human emotion. No purchasing decision is ever made with the head. It’s always the heart,” Mahoney argues. “The reason we’re seeing a resurgence of ‘real’ is the threat we find ourselves under, financially, technologically and physically. We’re feeling vulnerable, so brands are tapping into our need for human connection and the reassurance this offers.”

The trend towards realism was always bubbling under the surface. It’s taken a few more campaigns to reveal the positive reaction from people when companies understand them and see them as more than mere sources of income. As the cost-of-living crisis grinds on, the time is right for advertisers to show genuine empathy with consumers, rather than constantly pushing products with no emotional connection or meaning built in.