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A question of authenticity: Are these branded 'candid' videos from British Airways, Coca-Cola and T-Mobile real or fake?

Joseph Liu is a career consultant, keynote speaker, columnist, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast. He helps professionals relaunch their careers by more powerfully marketing their personal brands. His work is informed by 10 years of global, client-side marketing experience in the US & UK managing brands including Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, his involvement with four major brand relaunches, and 500+ hours of professional career coaching. He now applies principles used to build & relaunch consumer brands to help professionals and business owners build & relaunch their personal brands. He's been a speaker at TEDx and MarketingWeek Live, and served as a judge for The Drum’s Social Buzz Awards.

Authenticity is very important to me as both a marketer and consumer. In a day and age when so many things are scripted, when so many products are knock-offs, I value truth, genuineness, and sincerity more than ever.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see a branded video that purports to capture real-time bystander reactions unfolding but instead features staged actors and planted extras to artificially generate the perfect expression of “emotion” on camera.

I can just imagine how these conversations unfold where a marketing team wants to create a compelling video that captures the intense emotion people experience with a brand to drive more engagement among prospective consumers. Then, someone in the meeting finally asks the elephant-in-the-room question: “What if people don’t react in the way we want them to on camera?”

After an awkward silence, the team then decides to: A) be brave and film whatever they can, B) hire staged actors to feature mimicking the desired emotion, or C) script out the entire video and feature hired actors and extras to act out every scene.

I’m here to tell you that viewers and consumers can see right through options B and C. And while recording a staged storyline may deliver a nicely polished brand video, consumers rarely react positively when they sense something is disingenuous or doctored.

Remember the 2011 L’Oreal ads featuring Julia Roberts & Christy Turlington? Having people act out emotion in a branded video has the same effect as overly Photoshopping an image. At best, the desired persuasive impact is reduced. At worst, it leaves viewers with a bad taste in their mouths and makes them wonder whether this disingenuous inauthenticity extends across everything the brand does.

Are the branded videos below filled with real consumers showing real emotion or fake consumers with scripted reactions? My verdicts are below:

British Airways - A Ticket to Visit Mum

Even though this video was “produced,” the story is incredibly powerful because the people featured are authentic, showing real emotion. For all you sons or mothers out there, be warned, you might find it hard to hold back the tears.

Verdict: REAL!

Microsoft Windows - Live Tile Experiment

Come on. Are you telling me these are actual passersby who happened to be standing there? That Microsoft Legal was comfortable with a falling façade nearly decapitating a random passerby? I’ll concede the featured protagonists here have truly nailed the “I’m so stunned” look, but is it just me, or do you sniff a casting director somewhere in the crowd?

Verdict: FAKE!

Diet Pepsi - Check Out

In this case, although Josh Duhamel is clearly an actor by profession, he’s clearly ad-libbing, creating spontaneous, unscripted reactions amongst shoppers that definitely made me laugh and watch this again and again.

Verdict: REAL!

Volkswagen - The Fun Theory Piano Stairs

This simple, compelling idea was authentically executed and captured, demonstrating that powerful emotion can be subtle. It need not always be conveyed by wide-eyed people jumping up and down in exuberant elation to drive behavioural changes.

Verdict: REAL!

Coca-Cola - Smile Back

Don’t get me wrong. I actually love this idea, and I think Coke’s Happiness campaign concept has the potential to be incredibly powerful. I’m sorry though. The spontaneous dance party in the subway, the worker catching the perfectly projected bottle, and the framed girl furiously clapping and jumping up and down with bokeh camera effects was just a bit too over-the-top to make me believe any of these reactions happened naturally.

Verdict: FAKE!

T-Mobile - Angry Birds Live

I know, I know. Millions of hits. However, this has got to be the king of all fake videos. While the actual production was amazing, all the acted out expressions of delight and fun amongst the paid extras was a bit disingenuous and detracted from the potential emotional impact.

Verdict: FAKE!

My assumption is that each brand was trying to make it seem these people were all caught unprompted, unscripted as a way of giving prospective target consumers a voyeuristic glimpse into an amazing consumer experience. In the cases of Coke and T-Mobile, maybe the scripted and choreographed feel was intentional. Maybe I’m just missing the point. Maybe brands believe it’s good enough to feature scripted “candid” videos that showcase carefully rehearsed scenes, perfect camera angles, and people smiling at just the right moments to accomplish this.

However, if these brands had actually filmed real passers-by experiencing real emotion, the impact would have been even greater. By instead choosing to feature hired extras acting out scripted emotions, the irony is that viewers are left feeling like they’ve watched another ad where a brand is trying too hard to prove they’re likable.

Brands should insist on capturing real emotion, real experiences, and real people reacting with authentic moments of surprise, delight, and happiness if they want to breakthrough and create lasting impact that makes a brand truly unforgettable.

What do you think? Does it really make any difference whether these videos are scripted out? Am I being too cynical about the chances of people being capable in acting so hyperbolically emotive? And if these videos were intended to be more like traditional adverts, do you agree there’s upside to capturing real emotion in a more authentic fashion? I’d welcome your feedback.

With over eight years of client-side brand management & marketing experience at Fortune 500 FMCG and start-up companies in the US & UK, managing brands that include Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, Joseph Liu helps professionals & small business owners relaunch their careers with resources to help them navigate career change and more powerfully market their personal brands at josephpliu.com. He's also the host of the Career Relaunch podcast, featuring inspiring stories of career change.