What can newborn babies tell Ivy League educated grown ups about marketing?  Apparently a lot. According to numerous studies, newborn babies hold salient clues to the question that’s been debated by marketers for decades:  Should advertisers use real people or actors in TV ads?  

Over the last twenty years, more advertisers have been using real people in their commercials.  And there are substantial upsides.  Real people are cheaper than actors.  They won’t appear in ads for competitors.  Theoretically, real people are more authentic.  But in practice, are real people more compelling than actors?  Before we solicit the opinion of newborn babies, let’s examine a famous ad campaign that employed real people and delivered big results.  

By all accounts, Dove’s Real Beauty ad campaign launched in 2004 was a homerun.  Going against mainstream beauty standards, Dove featured average looking women in their ads alongside provocative headlines.  The ads were so different they stood out and created positive social impact, endearing the Dove brand to women and men alike.  Sales of Dove products jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion in the first ten years of the campaign.  It was an overwhelming success, spawning a plethora of real people ads for the next decade.  

A Dove advertisement from the legendary “Real Beauty” Campaign.

But was Dove’s “real people” success the rule or exception?  Brantley Davis, President of  Brantley Davis Ad Agency, has been marketing major law firms, automotive groups and political campaigns for thirty years and regularly uses real people and actors in TV ads.  He contends Dove’s success was the product of breakthrough thinking by creatives, not necessarily using real people.  “When the Dove campaign launched, very few major brands were using real people in ads.  Dove’s approach was refreshing.  It made the homogenous sea of ads featuring picture perfect supermodels seem superficial and phony.  And helped women appreciate themselves for who they were, blemishes and all.”  

Brantley Davis Ad Agency,  produces 300-500 TV ads each year.  And according to Davis, commercials featuring actors perform significantly better than real people ads.  “We’ve pulled real people ad campaigns off the air because they weren’t working.  And in each instance, as soon as we put ads featuring attractive actors back on the air, our metrics skyrocketed.”  

Davis isn’t alone in this view.  Real people ads have received their fair share of criticism and delivered lackluster results for many brands. The Chevy campaign featuring real people guffawing over Chevy cars and JD Power awards was panned by many as inauthentic.  The ads even inspired parody videos.  Maybe that’s a positive for Chevy?  As P.T. Barnum famously said, “just make sure you spell the name right.”   

While anecdotal,  these examples beg the question, why don’t real people ads work as well as commercials featuring actors?  Davis contends the answer can be traced back to basic human instinct.  “Countless scientific studies have demonstrated that humans pay attention to more attractive people versus less attractive.  And as a rule, telegenic actors are more attractive than real people.  Even babies less than six weeks old prefer more symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing faces. It’s nature driving our basic instinct to favor those more likely to ensure the survival of the human species.”  

According to the research, Davis is right.  Human infants prefer to look at physically attractive human faces when they are paired with physically less attractive human faces (Langlois, Roggman, Casey, Ritter, Rieser-Danner & Jenkins, 1987). Infant preference for attractive faces has been observed for a range of human faces, including Caucasian and African American adult female faces, adult male faces, and infant faces (Langlois, Ritter, Roggman & Vaughn, 1991; Samuels & Ewy, 1985; Van Duuren, Kendell-Scott & Stark, 2003). 

Davis also brought up the psychological theory of homophily many marketers use as a rationale for using real people in ads.  Homophily is the theory that people like people who are similar to them.  But Davis points out that there are far more factors at play in selling products than choosing friends.  Is a woman in the market for expensive perfume swayed more by an aspirational image or one more mundane?  Are people with more symmetrical faces more influential?  Ask a newborn baby.