Tell me a story: The evolution of consumer testimonials
You remember the George Foreman grill. The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” LifeCall woman. The still-puzzling ShakeWeight fitness program. All dubiously-effective products sold by “real people” actors talking directly into the camera, interrogation-style, waxing poetic over the grill’s dishwasher-safe drip tray that positively revolutionized Sunday night dinners. It’s ads like these that gave testimonials a bad name. We were captivated, then nauseated by, all the put-on and drama. The endorsement rang false and, subsequently, the product came off as cheap, ineffective, and lacking emotional value. A shame, because the wares advertised (ShakeWeight excluded) probably have something to offer the consumer. Valid product, terrible messaging and delivery.
Testimonials have come a long way in 20-plus years. As consumers look for authenticity in the products they buy and the lifestyles they strive to achieve, the slick, treacly, scripts of 90s-era infomercials are pretty much moot. Testimonials are still, and will always be, relevant and effective. Just in smaller, subtler doses. Earnestly delivered. Emotionally charged. Narratives that tell a story, rather than vapid celebrations of goods and services that the “real actors” of late-night 90s television were probably just using for the first time.
In modern marketing and advertising, the testimonial campaign creates a space for solidarity between the product advocate and the consumer. We see our problems, our habits, our goals in the lives of people who’ve benefitted from a product or service we’re now curious to try. A testimonial tells a compelling story, which, at the end of the day, is what every good advertising campaign attempts to do and what very few achieve.
In the past few years, consumer testimonials have become the spine of campaigns for a few surprising brands – Chevrolet, Febreze, Aflac, and even CodeAcademy, to name a few. They’re not traditional testimonials, to be sure. These aren’t all campaigns that run a standard Q&A interview format or that play to the track of soft sob-story piano music. Testimonials have evolved to enrich personal stories, mimic user journeys, align consumers to a specific character, and ultimately sell the benefit of the product, all in the context of quality creative content. It’s marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing. Edutainment, if you will.
The Febreze “Noseblind” challenge is a mockumentary campaign that shows real people taking part in a scent experiment. The effectiveness of the testimonial portion of this campaign is that, essentially, it’s a spoof; it’s all a big joke. Study participants are guided, blindfolded, into some location of general filth that’s been made aromatic with spray fabric refreshers and plug-in air fresheners. The goal of the testimonial is to subvert the subjects’ expectations; to tout the benefits of Febreze products for real-life scenarios, in places that you, the viewer, have found yourself wrinkling your nose many times before – a dank garage, the kitchen after a fish dinner, a college dorm room. Blindfolded, the subjects describe the aromas of the space to the camera – “floral,” “slightly citrus,” “like the ocean,” – and are subsequently horrified when the blindfolds are removed to reveal the backdrop of squalor. It’s a clear, compelling storyline with specific characters – the unsuspecting test subjects, the brand ambassador with the big reveal, and the chuckling cameraman in on the whole joke. Odors are subjective, so the testimonial aspect gives the viewer the human angle we need to trust the claim – this really does smell amazing, even in a world as filthy and smelly as yours.
When well-executed, the testimonial aspect of an advertising campaign doesn’t even have to be long – even a line or two will suffice. Aflac is a brand known for turning consumers’ true stories into marketing gold, giving us an idea of the dangerous, painful, uncertain situations life might throw at us where we’ll be only too relieved to have great insurance to fall back on. But Aflac doesn’t take the melodramatic confessional approach. The brand tells a true story as briefly as possibly with a few elements of buffoonery, so that the viewer can both identify with a character’s dilemma and remain amused, in less time than it takes to lift the remote and flip to another channel. Aflac’s much-loved “Yoga” TV spot can actually be considered, at least partly, a consumer testimonial. We start with the spokesduck’s usual antics, stretching and balancing and deep-breathing in a studio surrounded by other fitness buffs. It’s all entertainment value, punctuated by the observation of a lithe young woman that he’s “not that great at yoga.” Her friend responds in turn that it may be so, but it only took him one day to pay her claim when she slipped a disc. Enter v/o extolling the features and benefits of 1-day pay from Aflac. And that’s all it takes. One line from one character, even when we, the viewer, know the characters aren’t real people. It’s the simulation of the testimonial framework that matters. We don’t know her name and the setting of the ad may be inane and abstract, but the benefit of the service is captured in dialogue, delivered by a recounted human experience. It’s a false premise, but the message is clear. Aflac has your back. Take it from the imaginary yoga friends downward-dogging next to the imaginary waterfowl speaking in Gilbert Gottfried’s nasal staccato.
Testimonials can also make big issues more accessible. They’re a great tool for PSAs and non-profit awareness campaigns, because they bring scary, sad, or unapproachable and topics to eye-level, where we can addresses them in a safe space.
The “It Gets Better” campaign from the Trevor Project is a great example of this kind of testimonial incorporation. Short videos created by celebrities, cultural leaders, and active members of the LGBTQI community empower young people struggling with the challenges of growing up queer in a society built around heterosexual norms. Just the breadth of the content – over 60,000 videos – communicate the joy of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance at the heart of the campaign. That every story is true, delivered honestly, with emotion and vulnerability, shatters our ideas of the taboo spaces that advertising and media might still be too cautious to broach.
What’s more, the “It Gets Better” campaign is actionable, protected from stagnant preach-and-run messaging by a call to action within every short video. Viewers in need of help can call a hotline or text a crisis line, or visit the website to find in-person resources closest to them. And for viewers simply moved and motivated by the stories (who isn’t?), there’s a call to donate to the Trevor Project and affiliated organizations that work to make a positive difference in the lives of LGBTQI youth.
Consumer testimonials can also help brands in traditionally cold, functional spaces present themselves as more human in both tone and mission. In 2015, Samsung created an app that helped autistic children make eye contact with parents and loved ones, a behavior that’s often difficult for people that struggle with social cues. “Look at Me” created incredible PR for the brand, but the story at the heart of the campaign was presented with such respect and authentic compassion that Samsung truly earned its newfound brand alignment with emotional markets like education, parenting, and psychology.
Nothing is more authentic than a mother that attests to her child’s growth and development, and as we see in this testimonial, Jong-Hyung’s mother is both astounded by the impact of the technology on her son and beaming with pride at his improvement in such a short time. In any other context, the “tech meets emotion” angle would read as a put-on, a desperate stab as rebranding sure to be met with cynicism. But the framework of the testimonial renders the consumer both empathetic and intrigued – the feelings are real and the brand is smart, ambitious, and benevolent. Machines can be human, says Samsung.
The consumer testimonial is a foundation of effective emotion-based advertising because it gives viewers, readers, and listeners access to the two things that make us most interested in a product or service – a story and the character who lives it. And with a quality product, there’s a multitude of stories already there, so nothing inauthentic can come from bringing one user’s narrative to light. Gone are the days of 12-minute infomercials that actually inspired consumers to “don’t wait, call now,” but the modern transformation of the testimonial has given us an easier, more entertaining, more valuable framework to communicate features and benefits in a way that we can actually see ourselves as part of the story.