Real world, real people

The pandemic has taken the gloss off the world of marketing, and that’s a good thing.

An interesting thing happened during lockdown in South Africa: businesses battling to stay afloat, or those launching products like masks online for the first time, suddenly had to do all their marketing without models, photographers and studios. They were locked down at home and battling cash flow problems – what else were they going to do?

Designers and entrepreneurs showcased their goods using real people in real environments, and their photos were generally taken using cellphones, maybe with a filter slapped on for good measure. Some managed to get a little design work done, with a friend-of-a-friend editing people onto better-looking backgrounds and adding an arty flourish. But it all looked fine.

People cleared the background clutter and roped in their kids and partners to model masks and clothing. They arranged small products on scrubbed chopping boards or even on their kitchen counters, garnished with something pretty from the garden.

Suddenly, marketing pics looked different. Overnight, we went from perfectly lit, impossibly beautiful models in idyllic places, to ordinary people in recognisably real-life homes. The fact that you could see the neighbour’s washing line through the carefully styled window wasn’t a problem. In fact, it made the products more relatable.

Despite the less professional artwork, online shoppers like me could still see the products perfectly well and – thanks to the photo filters – we still understood the general brand messaging. And we bought their goods. Some of their businesses thrived. In fact, because I could see the real people behind the products, trying so hard to hustle a living, I bought more stuff than usual. I figured that they were nice, ordinary people just battling to pay the bills, so I could spring for yet another pretty mask to support them.

Pot plants and pets

The same sort of thing happened with celebrities, musicians, chefs and creatives, barmen, hairdressers and all sorts of skilled trades. People moved out of their carefully designed professional environments and let everyone into their homes to watch their vlogs and tutorials. They were endearingly ordinary. You could see their pot plants, clutter, pets, souvenirs and family photos. It made me like them more and want to support their work.

Ordinary people armed with cellphones became the new comedians and entertainers – and judging by their following, we like them. Those who have been doing it for a while have millions of followers: @wianmagic has a whopping 9.3 million followers watching him perform magic tricks at home, @shandorlarenty is possibly less relatable to the average Joe, but nonetheless he has over 2.8 million TikTok followers enjoying his close encounters with South African wildlife. But the rising stars are doing pretty well too: @tumsmmope’s Tik Tok channel has over 28 000 people following for her funny updates on everyday life in a complex on the West Rand.

Aspirational has been the rallying cry for ads and marketing for years, and it has certainly worked for brands that target young people. And, of course, for all the social media influencers. But now that most of us – including the young trendsetters – spend a lot more time slouching around at home wearing sweatpants, could it be that aspirational is making way for relatable? Might we suddenly see a swing from admiring stars in ivory towers to applauding the hard-working guy down the road? Will the virtual worlds we like best, be very ordinary worlds we can tap into online?

TRACY BURROWS is a freelance IT and corporate writer and a long time contributor to all of ITWeb's platforms.
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