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The End of Shaq-vertising? Why Brand Advertisers are Keeping it Real

“I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.”

– NBA basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal

When Shaq spoke these words back in 1996, he wanted to make it clear that his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t about the money. He did it — or so he wanted us to believe  —  for the love of the game. Well, that and all the product endorsements that went along with it.

The irony of Shaq’s statement reveals an obvious truth: famous people are always going to be tapped to market brands. And they’ll almost certainly do it for the money. But this was 1996. Bill Clinton was president. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture, and “Macarena” held the #1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 (and people were buying CDs!). The world’s most recognized and revered pro athletes, musicians, and actors were landing huge endorsement deals right and left, urging millions of “Generation Next” to “Just Do It.”

The formula has pretty much stayed the same. Until now.

Yes they still exist, but celebrity endorsers are quickly becoming the ad gimmick of the past, when celebrity trumped authenticity and young people chose their next product during (realllllllly long) MTV commercial breaks. Even this Ad Age article from 2011 showed that celebrity product endorsements are often a proven waste of time and money.

Today’s youth, especially, cringe at big-money endorsements. According to Deep Focus’ Winter/Spring 2015 Cassandra Report: Gen Z, they’re nearly twice as likely to want to see “real people” than celebrities in advertising. Why? Because there’s something so inauthentic, so unattainable, about celebs and superstar athletes shilling products that we all know they probably would never touch if not for their 7-figure endorsement deals. Because the aspirational celeb life isn’t really what gets this generation fired up. What’s cool is them.

In a time of 24/7/365, at-your-fingertips information availability, the generation raised on the Internet is interconnected —  and this in turn has given them marketing and advertising superpowers. So, given a small window of time to process information  —  often across multiple devices and screens  —  if you’re going to market to these people, you damn well better make sure the message is relatable, real, and conveys some value. Otherwise you’ll be tuned out and doomed to failure.

Today, it takes more than Shaq to sell a soda or a shoe. It takes soul.

Brands need to consider pulling back on their over-reliance to market themselves through superstars and athletes (or, minimally, get more fair about endorsement deals). Instead, brands should take a dose of inspiration from real people, the very same consumers buying and using their products and services.

Brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Nike are trying. “For us, we are always trying to be at our core about authenticity and being real, and showcasing the real lives of everyday people,” says Dick’s CMO Lauren Hobart. Dick’s is running ads featuring women in real-life scenarios (like getting a run in before the kids wake up or finally mastering a difficult yoga pose), poignantly asking, “Who Will You Be?” And Nike’s #betterforit campaign inserts viewers into the unfiltered (often hilarious) inner thoughts of average women on their work-out journeys. Smart move, considering women-centered products generate nearly $6 billion for Nike.

Procter & Gamble’s Always brand is also finding major success in real-vertising. Earlier this year, its #LikeAGirl Super Bowl commercial was a clear winner —  real girls and women threw the stereotype that doing something “like a girl” somehow means “lesser-than” in our faces, then completely debunked it at the same time. Following up on the ad’s success is #Unstoppable —  a new ad again featuring real girls and women, but this time they talk candidly about female confidence barriers, then, literally and powerfully, bust through them.

At a time when people  crave realness in all they see and do, they expect the same from brands. While sales will be the ultimate judge if the ROI on these types of ads is real, too, brands that feature real people in their marketing stand a very real shot at making a powerful connection with consumers today. Embedded within the human desire to achieve greatness , however large or small, is empathy. And when we watch people like you and me take that journey, it definitely gets real.

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