Do you enjoy watching TV commercials? I think most people would probably say they don’t, except maybe Super Bowl commercials. It is hard watching a steady stream of commercials for every kind of ailment in the world. Many like watching Netflix and streaming programs just to avoid commercials.
However, I am different. I actually like watching some commercials and studying the people in them. While we might be lulled into believing the people in these commercials are real families, the truth is, they aren’t. Usually they are actors, both paid and unpaid, who pretend to be part of a happy family and who are chosen to appear in all kinds of commercials, from selling cars and hearing aids, to the latest miracle cure for aches and pains. The truth is that they are not married, their families are made up and usually the scenery is fake. I am going to share a few experiences, where I have observed how people are selected to do commercials.
My first adventure in advertising was when I was chosen as a model in a Jeep advertisement in 1969. I was newly married and hadn’t started a family yet. Apparently, an advertising agency asked the Napa Chamber of Commerce if it could recommend a young woman to appear in advertising photos. Because I had been the Napa Valley Wine Queen in 1968, the Chamber gave them my name. I was contacted and asked if I would be interested. I said I would give it a try, and before I knew it, I was suddenly cast as the make-believe mother of two small children with a much older gray-haired husband in a Jeep advertisement.
On the morning of the photo “shoot,” we went into a Napa vineyard with a creek on the property. We were accompanied by photographers and a strange new Jeep with a removable camper attached.
In the ad, you can just barely see me getting in the camper. The vehicle looks like an antique today. I don’t think it made a dent in the recreational vehicle market in spite of my wonderful brochure. I don’t recall if I got paid. But I did get a “behind the scenes” view of how advertising models are selected and how the “happy family” scenes are staged. That day made me look at ads differently. Even so, it was a fun day.
My next advertising experience was in radio. We lived near Tom & Ita Young, the owners of the “Voice of the Valley,” radio station KVON. One day Tom Young asked me if I would be interested in doing a radio commercial for Zeller’s Hardware store (now Ace Hardware) with KVON executive, Ron Greenslate. Did I know anything about tools, electricity or paint? Of course not. But I tried to sound like I did with that great line that Ron Greenslate wrote, “Zeller’s Hardware. The store that has most everything.”
My career in radio ended after a while. I am not sure why. It might have had something to do with a joking comment my husband Philip made to Tom Young at Rotary. Philip told me later that he had asked Tom if KVON was going to pay me “residuals” for my Zeller advertisements. Later, Tom and Ita did ask me to host a new show, “Double Talk.” I thanked them but turned it down. Hosting a radio show required a major community involvement and time commitment. I was already busy with a full-time job raising our small children.
I had another fling in advertising years later. Two friends, Linda La Forge and Diane Slaughter, invited me to go with them to San Francisco to be interviewed for television commercials. We were not really serious but thought it might be a fun day. We had no idea what was in store for us. Frankly, I was more interested in lunch and shopping at Union Square.
The interviews were conducted in an old grey building on Market Street that had seen better days.
In fact, it looked like a survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire. There were no elevators so we walked up several flights of stairs to a room that was barely furnished. A man was sitting at a desk and other applicants were sitting around on folding chairs. We gave him our names and were told to sit down and wait to be called.
It was not a friendly place. It was deadly quiet and no one spoke. The other applicants were all ages, sexes, nationalities and dress. They looked like a normal cross section of people off Market Street. We were dressed up and felt out of place. We looked at each other and silently wondered what we were doing here.
Every 15 to 20 minutes, a name was called. When it was my turn, I walked into the connecting room. I immediately noticed two dirty windows looking down on Market Street and holes in the wall from pulled-out nails. There was another man sitting at a desk and a chair for me. He asked my name, where I lived and what I did for a living. It was a dull interview and I wondered if everyone was asked the same questions.
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Was this first interview just to size me up? Was I photogenic? Did he like my voice? Did I fit their profile? Were my teeth straight? Did I present myself well? Did I measure up to what they wanted? Could I be trusted and believed? It almost felt like my stewardess interview in 1963 when he gave me the same line, “We’ll be in touch.” In other words, you might hear back or you might not.
A few weeks later, we were shocked to be called back for our second interviews. Back to the ugly building with all the stairs. This time, 10 people at a time were ushered into the adjoining room. Their agency was looking for people to appear in a pain-relief commercial. We were told that each person would be interviewed privately to explain how pain affected their own bodies.
We whispered to each other, “Should we make it sound worse than it is?” “Do we have to be dramatic?” “Do we act or tell the truth?” “Do we really want to be selected?” We sat down and nervously waited our turn. This was more pressure than we expected. We were novices and the others seemed pretty calm. They were probably experienced, but not us.
I was just myself. I mentioned where it hurt when I had a headache, how long they lasted and what I took for pain. No wild exaggerations, no moaning or groaning. I knew I wasn’t what they wanted. It was not a fun few minutes. When over, we raced down those stairs and we were happy to find the sun brightly shinning as we walked in the direction of lunch and Macy’s.
Surprise, surprise, we passed again. They actually wanted us for a third interview. This next time was for filming or a screen test. This lark was starting to get too serious. The newness of our adventure was wearing off. We had real lives, not fake acting lives.
We were sure they wouldn’t miss us if we failed to appear. We knew there were many eager people receiving the same call. We were busy, not searching for new careers, and had spent enough money at Macy’s. That was the end of my fling with commercials.
Just recently, however, a Hollywood producer of a television ghost program called me. He had read my column, “The Hanging of William Roe” in the Napa Valley Register he found in a Google search. We shared emails and spoke on the phone. I thought he wanted me to act in a horror movie about William Roe’s ghost. I told him what I knew about the courthouse ghost and suggested some good locations for filming.
Unfortunately he was informed that active courthouses do not allow production companies to film inside for security reasons. I suggested some other locations like the roof top at Cole’s Chop House where Roe’s bones was placed to dry out or the site next to the historic courthouse where the gallows had been. I think he really wanted to shoot inside the courthouse attic where Roe’s ghost had been felt by a construction worker. So who knows, maybe I’ll hear from him again.
At this time in my life, I am content to be a spectator and check out other people’s commercials and ads. I get enough satisfaction having my column appear in the Register. But, now that I think about it, maybe I should suggest to the publisher that the columnists have sponsors. My column heading could read.
“Coffee, Tea, and Me,” brought to you by Grey’s Breakfast Tea.
Enjoy a cup of our tea while you read this column.”