Best Practices for Creating Testimonial Ads

It was one of the most daring and controversial ad campaigns of the past few decades – the Dominos “our pizza stinks” campaign. After a badly handled YouTube video scandal and complaints about the quality of their ingredients, the company build an entire mea culpa ad campaign that shocked consumers and the ad community. Their president posted a video on YouTube openly admitting quality had slipped. The ad campaign featured real customers criticizing the product, then the ads promised a retooling of the entire organization to improve quality. While many ad critics openly scorned the ads, the campaign generated amazing buzz because of its unflinching honesty.

The Struggle to be Believed
Overcoming this perception of dishonesty is one of advertising’s greatest obstacles. As James Webb Young, one of the last century’s advertising greats, once said, “Every type of advertiser has the same problem: to be believed.” Every customer knows that the ad is nothing more than a stage play. The commercial has been written and crafted by the product manufacturer. The customer knows the actors and writers have been paid handsomely to deliver a convincing message. So the entire ad premise begins with a feeling of hucksterism, manipulation, and unbelievability. This makes trust the elusive component that all advertisers struggle to achieve.

It is this struggle for believability that has made the testimonial ad one of the most powerful vehicles in advertising. As ad legend David Ogilvy said, “You should always include testimonials in your copy. The reader finds it easier to believe the endorsement of a fellow consumer than the puffery of an anonymous copywriter.”

The most powerful aspect of the testimonial ad is its genuine spontaneity. In traditional advertising, everyone on camera is slick and speaks in mellifluous prose. After watching years of this continuous stream of ad slickness, all of us have developed a sixth sense for sniffing out hidden hucksterism and inauthenticity.

The Authenticity of the Non-Actor
The beauty of testimonial advertising is that it breaks this rhythm. The people on camera are often clumsy, occasionally stammering, and can be downright shy. That hesitation in the speech and lack of confidence all show the customer that this is a real person with real feelings, not some slick Hollywood pitch man with a clearly biased agenda. Take a look at this testimonial ad for Post cereals. It is infectious because the people on camera are not beautiful.

But for many of us in the ad community, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to testimonials. After years of mastery in the production of slick ad prose and glistening video, we can’t seem to break the rhythm of the familiar pitch-man tone. This video ad for a newspaper features a bright and vibrant customer, but she’s just a little too good. I know she’s an actress and that robs the ad of its honesty.

In this ad, the customers speak in broken English. They are not articulate, but still convey a genuine passion. You trust them just a little bit more because they just seem like normal people.

Go for Passion, not Buzz Words
Ad execs coach real customers to say things that would never fall out of a human mouth. In this ad, they use a real customer but it is clear the man has been extensively coached. You quickly notice the inauthenticity. In this ad, the producer just couldn’t help falling back into the old Madison Avenue habit of eliciting soundbites, not true feeling. Real people don’t talk in ad speak.

Back in the 1980s, Folgers coffee launched one of the ad industries most successful testimonial campaigns that secretly switched fancy restaurant coffee with their instant coffee. Folger’s could have easily spent millions on fancy production for these testimonial ads, but it wisely kept the production values at a strictly amateur level. Notice the bad lighting, background noise, and grainy video in these ads. All these touches accentuate authenticity. I believe these people.

Here are some important things to remember when creating testimonial ads:

Keep Production Values Simple
Strive for a simple and clean look that puts the talent at ease and conveys an uncomplicated message. Build a look that accentuates a feeling of uncomplicated honesty. Remember that slickness can erode the credibility of your message.

Recruit Your Most Ardent Fans
Spend a lot of time recruiting people who are genuinely passionate about your product. You may need to interview dozens and dozens of people before you find the true fan boys who bubble over with a deep love of your product. Nothing is more powerful than an authentic passion for a product. Don’t just showcase any old customer you happen to round up. Finding demonstrative fans will add an infectious legitimacy to your commercials.

Try to Elicit for Unscripted Enthusiasm, Not Marketing Buzzwords
Anyone can get customers to parrot back the buzz words from the marketing plan, but these forced testimonials will lack heart. Great testimonial interviews take the time to find a window into a person’s soul. You will see the gleam in their eye, a smile on their face, and glimpse a true passion in their heart.

Don’t Rush Your Interviews
Realize that the first portion of the interview is nothing more than an opportunity for the talent to relax and get accustomed to the distraction of the cameras and lights. You will find that the most authentic and passionate testimonials come in the quiet moments between takes, or after the interview is over. Keep rolling and let them talk on their own terms.

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