NEW YORK — Most people who have seen Bill Demby's TV commercial remember him not so much for his face but for the two legs that he doesn't have.
The ad for Du Pont--which has been airing for nearly two years--features the Vietnam veteran playing rough-and-tumble basketball in a pickup game. The voice-over in the ad says, "When Bill Demby was in Vietnam, he dreamed of coming home and playing a little basketball. A dream that all but died when he lost both legs to a Viet Cong rocket."
Demby now wears two artificial legs made from a Du Pont plastic. Although he falls down once in the ad, the legs appear to give him some of the same smooth moves as everyone else on the court. "Now Bill's back," the commercial concludes, "and some say he hasn't lost a step."
This commercial vaulted Demby into stardom. He has since appeared on numerous talk shows and was featured on the TV show 20/20. He was in Esquire magazine. He has hired a Washington public relations firm to book his speaking engagements. And he has received offers to star in a TV movie.
Now try to picture that same commercial cast with someone else in Demby's role. Pretty hard, isn't it? Demby was an unemployed, unknown Vietnam veteran until he was discovered by a New York company called Faces & Places. The company specializes in finding "real people"--not professional actors--to appear in TV commercials. After several weeks of searching for the right person for the Du Pont ad, a Faces & Places researcher found Demby in Nashville, Tenn., competing in something called the National Amputee Games.
"Originally, I really wasn't interested in doing the commercial," said Demby, who was very cool to the Faces & Places researcher who approached him at the event. "I figured they'd try to hook me up to some invisible wires and have me flying through the air while standing on my head."
Of course, he eventually did agree to make the ad. But he still hasn't quite figured out how the commercial casting company found him. "Can you imagine having only a handful of days to find a black Vietnam veteran, who is an amputee and who happens to play basketball?" asked the 38-year-old. "If I had to do a job like that, I'd be a lot more bald than I am now."
Well, it took plenty of research to find Bill Demby. At the request of the ad agency, BBDO Worldwide, officials from Faces & Places contacted Vietnam veterans' organizations, veterans hospitals and support groups for the handicapped. "I began to feel like Sherlock Holmes," said Kathy Sorkin, president of Faces & Places. "One little clue led to another."
This business of finding real people to appear in television commercials has blossomed into its own mini-industry. Advertising agencies--many of which are trying to cut back on staff--are increasingly looking to outside specialists to help them find ordinary people to appear in their ads. "You have Barbara Bush as First Lady and Roseanne Barr as everyone's favorite actress," said Laura Slutsky, president of PeopleFinders, a New York specialty casting firm. "So what do you expect?"
Well, advertising agencies, which have this sudden hankering for real people in their ads, sometimes want real people who do unreal things. Last year, Slutsky faced the task of finding people born in the last century who have remained unusually active. With the help of several senior citizen organizations, she found a 91-year-old bike rider, a 95-year-old softball player and a 102-year-old woman who still flies a private airplane. They all appeared in an ad for a regional health-care company.
Not all the assignments are that tough. PeopleFinders found all those cheerful coffee drinkers in the Maxwell House ads who tell weatherman Willard Scott that Maxwell House is their favorite brew. And it selected those Ford employees who gush over Ford in the company's ads. Meanwhile, Faces & Places has found real people to appear in ads for Burger King and Pizza Hut.
Both PeopleFinders and Faces & Places have opened offices in Los Angeles, where more than half of their ads are filmed. And the greater Los Angeles area--particularly portions of San Bernardino County--has recently emerged as one of the national hot spots for finding everyday people to star in ads.
"In New York, everyone is suspicious of you," said Sorkin, who worked at PeopleFinders before leaving several years ago to form Faces & Places. "But in Southern California, people are warm, friendly and eager to talk about just about anything."
This week, Slutsky will be in the Los Angeles area hunting for real Dove soap users to appear in testimonial ads. But she won't say where she's looking. For that matter, she also plans to use a fake name and disguise her appearance. Slutsky doesn't want you to find her. Because if she--or her assistants--don't find you on their own, they won't even consider using you in a commercial. That way, they say, they're assured objectivity in the ads. The Federal Trade Commission requires that all testimonial advertising be authentic.