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Viewing consumers differently

February 1, 2010
by Jimmy Rhoades
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A TV producer reflects on developing antistigma PSAs

In the world of commercials, here's the easiest way a job can go down: A huge client gives you a pile of money to cast beautiful actors to sell a product everyone already wants. Cha-ching! Oh, and it helps if you're already in the business of making commercials. This is the story of one of the best gigs I've ever had, which met absolutely none of those criteria.

Instead, the client had a tight budget. We had to do “real people” casting. The “product” was to ask people to look inward to assess their own prejudices. And our company, Nice Work Productions, had been in the business of doing long-form storytelling, not 30-second commercials.

First some backstory: My partner at Nice Work, Jay Nelson, and I produced a one-hour TV special promoting volunteerism called Hands On Michigan: The Governor's Service Awards, which was simulcast on the state's seven PBS affiliates. The volunteer of the year was Mike McCartan, so we spent a day in Port Huron following Mike around as he did his usual, remarkable community service work.

We discovered that Mike has one heck of a day job: CEO of St. Clair County Community Mental Health Authority (CMH). Mike enjoyed working with us, so when CMH got a grant from a national antistigma program to produce a local campaign, they asked us to submit a bid.

We were thrilled to get the job. Now we had to figure out how to pull it off.

The first step in creating this sort of campaign is defining the concept, and it helped that the national program had done a good job defining what they wanted to accomplish, namely to combat the tendency to collapse people who use mental health services into their diagnoses. You hear it all too often, words along the lines of, “So-and-so's bipolar [or some other diagnosis],” end of sentence, which, of course, means we know just one aspect of this person. We don't know if she has kids or likes cats, or how she takes her coffee.

That problem suggested a fairly straightforward approach. In a series of 30-second public service announcements (PSAs), we'd open with arresting visuals-lots of action, lots of color-to cause viewers to frame the “hero” of the spot by what they see him/her doing. Then, in casual, confessional-style interviews, the hero would rattle off a list of other ways he/she is defined: relationships, hobbies, jobs, and so on. At the end of the list of descriptors, almost as an afterthought, the hero would reveal his/her diagnosis and end with the appropriate tagline: “I am not my mental illness [or addiction, developmental disability, etc.].”

Everyone signed off on the concept, and next it was on to casting.

Remember the cake commercial job I described earlier? In that dream gig, the real cakewalk is casting day. If you're in a big market, you call a casting director, give her a breakdown of what you're looking for, and she in turn passes the breakdown to all the talent agencies in the area. The talent agencies send the casting director headshots and résumés of all the actors who seem appropriate and, if the casting director is any good, she pares down the invitation list to only those actors who really fit the breakdown's parameters. (Agents like to throw a lot of pasta at the wall.)

Then, in one casting session, a bunch of people who spend inordinate amounts of time grooming themselves, whitening their teeth, and doing Pilates show up-prefiltered to meet your parameters, script memorized, and hell-bent on charming your socks off. There's often even a spread of food. All in all, not a bad day.

Yet to keep CMH's spots authentic, we didn't want to cast actors. We'd have to find CMH consumers willing to publicly broadcast their diagnosis, and who regularly did something active and visual that would look good on camera.

We weren't going to figure that out by having everyone come to us. So we took a small, nonintimidating video camera and went to people's homes, jobs, parks, and schools to get some tape of them doing whatever they would do in the PSA. We crisscrossed the “thumb” area of Michigan's “mitten,” videotaping CMH consumers playing soccer, restoring Harleys, bowling, drawing cartoons, reading poetry, and more.

It was tons more work than a traditional casting day, but what should have been a trade down wound up being my favorite part of the job-and prepared me to do a better job directing the spots once we made our selections. I had to get over whatever hang-ups I had-and didn't want to admit-about people with developmental disabilities, addictions, or mental illnesses. Over and over again, I met people generous with their time, funny, and curious about making commercials. I also met some prickly personalities, just like in any other production situation.

And that was the point. I met fully dimensional people, whose diagnosis was only one, often minor, component of their personality. Our budget covered only four PSAs, yet I found myself leaving every casting visit arguing to include the person I just met.

We wound up choosing a horticulturist (the shots of her repotting flowers were absolutely bursting with color), a competitive cyclist (great fast action shots), a carpenter (sawdust flying everywhere-great for the camera), and a baker (we got to eat the cookies at the end!). Along the way we found out that they also variously played tennis, surfed, dated, and collected coins. Oh, and they had individual diagnoses of either bipolar disorder, developmental disabilities, or mild mental retardation. The tagline certainly fit: The consumers we selected-and everyone we met in the casting process-were certainly not just their diagnoses.

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