If you watch TV at all, you’ve probably seen one of the many “focus group” ads from Chevy, where supposedly real people are consistently flabbergasted at the car company’s achievements. But just how authentic are the things we see in these commercials?
The Chevy ads usually follow some version of the following: Mild-mannered focus group guy asks a generic question about car performance, cost, or awards; the folks off the street answer, and then are blown away (maybe a little too much so) by the fact that the answer to all the good questions is always Chevy.
One of the supposedly real people in those ads — who claims not to be an actor — gave a long interview to the A.V. Club telling the story of how he ended up on the set of a Chevy commercial without meaning to, and what went on there.
“Paid Market Research”
It all started out when someone asked him if he’d be willing to do some paid market research. “That’s something that sounds kind of sketchy, but I’ve done a lot of market research, so I’ve actually experienced this before,” he told the A.V. Club. “It usually results in this thing where you end up in a boardroom and they just ask you questions or show you slides or photos and ask your opinion on things. It’s usually pretty legit.”
And usually it’s a decent amount of cash for a couple hours of time, he added, so he figured sure, why not. After he filled out a questionnaire about cars, the contact told him he’d probably hear from them soon, and if he participated in the “market research” he’d get paid $200.
The first red flag that this wasn’t ordinary market research, he told the A.V. Club, came when he was told the focus group would be at the L.A. Convention Center — not exactly an anonymous boardroom. He described the scene as, “two people sitting at a folding table completely alone in the middle of an empty convention center with nothing around … It felt like a mile walk. It was so awkward, like when you hold the door for someone and you’re waiting for them, but they’re really far away.”
Waiting… And Waiting
Once he and everyone else had passed through another round of questionnaires and forms, it was time to hurry up and wait… in the big, empty convention center. “It kind of felt like we were about to be euthanized, to be honest. I’m serious,” he told the A.V. Club. “I almost walked away just because—I don’t want to say they treated us badly, because they didn’t, but they just didn’t really talk to us. It was strange.”
Nobody knew the session was for Chevy until after the awkward waiting was finally over and the panelists were ushered into… an even more awkward impeccably arranged room.
The cameras, he tells the A.V. Club, were loud, intrusive, and obvious. But the plan for the commercial was much less obvious. Everyone just sort of “magically got in that line of four people … it was like they had this weird power,” he said.
But when the cameras were rolling, everyone — despite not being actors, as far as he knew — seemed ready to perform. While waiting around, nobody seemed all that enthusiastic, and when they made small talk about their jobs none claimed to act. But when the lights came on and the cameras started rolling, “They suddenly became these perfect spokespeople … all of these people were spewing out these buzzwords.”
He was less ad-worthy than some of the others with him, though. When the spokesman started asking about the awards Chevy had won, he reports, “I was actually kind of impressed because I didn’t think Chevy… I didn’t think they were actually decorated at all, and I guess it is something to say you have the most meaningless awards over all the other car brands in terms of meaningless awards.”
From there, the experience got stranger. The door opened wide to reveal awards, but “it was the loudest, most awkward and slow-moving thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he recalled. The spokesman, a professional, managed to keep smiling as if nothing strange were going on, while the participants endured an awkward silence punctuated by doors.
And indeed, he — and the cameras — were apparently the key to making all of these “real people” perform on cue. “You felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one guy,” the participant told the A.V. Club. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…
Being surprised by meaningless awards and confused by the process, however, is not a great way to end up in the final cut of an ad. Participants were told that they’d be paid extra if their likeness or voices were used in the final commercial, but his never were.
“I was just hoping and praying they would use my face or my voice, but they never did,” he told the A.V. Club. “It’s probably because I was just looking around at everything, constantly laughing. My reaction to everything was laughter.”
And while it was an impressive pile of awards Chevy highlighted in the ad he participated in, he points out that they’re not exactly the ones most people care about deeply. They measure satisfaction with new cars or performance within six months of ownership — not, as he put it, “10 years and not breaking down a single time.”