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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sharon Livingston

Secrets to TV Ad Casting: Part 1

“Your Customers Make the Best Casting Consultants” Research has shown that the most convincing protagonists in ads not only deliver the message adequately, but that they also capture the hearts and minds of consumers because they are likable and credible. More importantly, the most compelling actors deliver their message with an authentic emotional impact that inspires viewers to ACTION.

But how can you get your target market’s help to find the best people to tell a compelling story?

The answer: Research!

If you’re like most qualitative advertising copy researchers I know, you show respondents storyboards, animatics or close to finished ads using actual actors.

Sound right?

When we do get to expose commercials to real people, they have used selected actors who have responded to a casting call. The choice of actors is made by advertising professionals based on their informed judgments of who would work best for the brand and message.

Then, we’re often asked to test the power of these potential ads by posing a number of typical questions [generally over thinking it, since respondents in real life would NEVER spend this much time with an ad. But that’s a topic for another article.]:

-Initial thoughts and feelings -How compelling it is to take some action -Main benefit -Main point the ad is making about the product -Other benefits -Possible drawbacks -Believability -Confusion – anything hard to understand? -Likes/dislikes about the visuals -User imagery -Brand imagery -Possible improvements

That makes sense. Right?


And, maybe not

What if we could use consumer reactions to help agencies choose more compelling spokespersons for video campaigns?

Not surprisingly, the people featured in ads play a critical role in the success of any TV campaign or online or print approach. While ad agencies do a great job of casting, some progressive companies have realized that the keen perceptions and emotional reactions of their customers go far in selecting people who play compelling advocates for their brands of products and services.

Key qualifications for the best protagonist include questions of likeability, credibility and authenticity.


Likeability, according to sociologist Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of “Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion,” is one of the key pillars of getting someone to say, “Yes!”

People are ready to be persuaded by people they like. We don’t buy products, we buy relationships! It makes sense. We’re more inclined to listen to people we like as well as agree with them. People we like can persuade us of their point of view. Our friends, for example, have major impact on our views of the world. We can be swayed by their opinions.

So, to measure the appeal of a given actor we need to assess her/his likeability. But, what makes an actor in a commercial likeable?

Here’s what we discovered:

Eye Contact

We’ve always heard “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” Consumers do or do not bond with the protagonist in an ad, based on what they read in their eyes.

The eyes are extremely important for communication. The muscles around the eyes express emotional states and the size of the pupil signals whether a person is awake and alert or bored and fatigued; interested or closed off.

Eye contact is an important way to emotionally connect with another. Generally speaking, the longer the eye contact, the greater the intimacy.

In casting research, actors who maintain sustained eye contact with the camera are judged to be more likeable than those who look away. The more they look away the less likeable they become. And if they look down and away, they’re judged as sly and untrustworthy like a “sleazy used car salesman.”

Pupils enlarge when people are engaged with each other. Pupils contract when people back off and retreat into the safety of self.

Respondents’ reactions to the different actors’ eyes shouldn’t be surprising. Although it’s often not considered in ad testing, pupil size is an overlooked social signal that is readily picked up by observers.

In a landmark study by Hess [1975. The role of pupil size in communication. Scientific American, 233(5), 110-119] it was shown that individuals with large pupils are perceived more positively than individuals with small pupils. In that study, participants were asked to draw pupils in line drawings of faces with empty irises. They drew large pupils in the happy face, and small ones in the angry face.

As we’re growing up and through interactions with close others we learn that large pupils mean care, interest and attention and small pupils the opposite, suggesting coolness, aloofness and disregard. No wonder the consumers in our study saw actors with larger pupils as more likeable, credible and sincere.

AND, the longer the eye contact, the more self-esteem one is perceived to have. The more self-esteem, the more likely one is to persuade others.

In casting research, respondents are keen to pick up on this vacuous eye contact.

Respondents by and large characterize high quality eye contact as “looking at”, “looking into”, or “connecting with” the viewer, whereas low quality, less persuasive eye contact is perceived as “looking through” the viewer, or even worse, as a “vacant stare” (other words used to describe this were “soulless” and “empty”).

A large number of respondents were able to link the perception of eye contact quality to the level of dilation in the pupils. A blank stare is associated with more decreased dilation (smaller pupil size); whereas a positive emotional connection is associated with larger pupils.


Another factor is the actor’s smile. Smiling is a universal and clear indicator of "it's OK, you’re safe." Your consumers like to see “nice” teeth revealed by the smile.. Actors who flashed their healthy looking pearly whites were deemed more likable and believable. In our culture, the condition of our teeth suggests, beauty, health, economic status and levels of self esteem and confidence.

On the other hand, “phony white” raised skepticism. If the actor’s teeth were too white, they were seen as pretentious and overly dramatic. This person was trying too hard and couldn’t be trusted.

An excerpt from a report speaking to likeability:

“Sue” was a highly likable character who seemed warm, fun and genuine. She came across as being a regular person with her natural, unaffected movements and delivery, and thus was easy to relate to:

-“She was pleasant, I could relate to her. Her presenting seemed more real and she was more likable. I was more interested in her presentation. I guess I can look at somebody and they can turn me right off, but she seemed so friendly that I wanted to hear what she had to say.” -“I like the way she looked at me straight on. It was like we were having a real conversation.” -“She seemed to be believable yet had a sense of humor about it. She was very natural. The way she spoke and her demeanor. I would find her to be a colleague.” -“She smiled when she spoke as if she was reaching out to me, almost like a friend.”

In the next post, we’ll discuss Believability in more depth as well as how casting differs when the protagonists in the ad are a couple.

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