Naomi Snieckus is instantly recognizable. Even when she’s covered in blood.
That’s because, before Ms. Snieckus landed a role in the seventh instalment of gory slasher movie franchise Saw (this time in 3-D!), she was busy accruing the kind of strange fame that comes with a career in TV commercials.
Whether bemoaning her schlubby husband’s dancing Christmas Tree gift in a Staples ad or cooing at her goofy husband’s pronunciation of “Emmenthal” for Kraft, her usually bespectacled face will be familiar to most viewers of English Canadian TV. She’s not alone. Canadian commercials are filled with actors whose faces seem to be everywhere while most people don’t know their names. The weirdo who kisses a friend’s girlfriend (while having the good sense to know Alexander Keith’s is not to be shared) is the same guy who went door-to-door telling people that Barq’s has bite. The fellow who photocopied his bum in a Diet Pepsi spot is the same one who played ping pong with a bag of Uncle Ben’s rice.
“There’s 100 guys in the room, they all look like you, and 95 per cent of them could do the job. And for some reason, they keep taking us,” said Jason DeRosse, the ping pong player.
But what drives the trend? In many cases, it’s as simple as reliability. Actors who build up a reputation for showing up on time and landing a joke or a line on take after take are a valuable resource for directors and agencies who are themselves under pressure to deliver a quality product. Clients investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a national campaign won’t be happy with a performance that falls flat. Mr. DeRosse has been told that directors will ask for him by name, which is common for the top tier of advertising actors.
“Casting is so crucial. You need someone who’s going to make an immediate impact. A guy like Jim [Annan, the Barq’s guy], he’s a pro,” said Pat Pirisi, creative director with DraftFCB. In addition, a large number of ads require a comic touch. While Canada’s acting community is by no means small , the pool of comedians who can hit the right tone in a scene, have a relate-able face and come across on camera can be – especially since so many comedians feel they have to go to the U.S. to succeed, he said.
That may be why the Second City comedy troupe is such a fertile breeding ground for commercial actors as well: the top comedy talent, at least in Toronto where many ads are shot, often cycle through the cast at some point, learning valuable lessons in performing comedy and improvisation that are crucial in an ad shoot.
“It’s a small community,” said actor Geoff Gustafson. He has lived in Vancouver since 2005 but is still drawn to Toronto to shoot ads for directors that know him.
But the drive to please can also create problems for clients.
“It’s actually a big issue for marketing people,” said Tim Hamilton, a director with production company Sons and Daughters, who often casts actors he has worked with before. There are cases where it doesn’t make sense, of course: Almost all actors have non-compete clauses in their contracts stating that they can’t be in an ad for a competitor in the same category, typically for a year after a commercial airs. But he’s puzzled by how often clients will hesitate because they believe an actor is “overexposed.”
“I don’t think anyone complains that Meryl Streep gets too many roles,” he said. “They’re simply good at what they do and they have something special that makes them stand out.”
Still, with so many advertisers competing for attention, marketing executives will often understandably insist on every facet of their campaign being completely proprietary – right down to the look of the actors playing the parts. Ad agencies respond to this; Mr. Pirisi will sometimes avoid using an actor he has seen too often, he said.
“I’m definitely saturated right now,” Ms. Snieckus said. “They don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, it’s the girl from that [other] ad.’ ”