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Fake People: So Much Better Than the Real Thing

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Two items in the latest Advertising Age:

1. A study by EPoll Market Research finds that consumers respond more positively to fictional characters than to real people as commercial spokespeople. Among the most liked and trusted: McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy, Karen Walker from Will & Grace and the penguins from Madagascar.

2. A $225 million ad campaign for Chrysler’s employee-discount program is judged a massive bomb after the ubiquitous commercials fail to draw new business. Among the problems: 80% of viewers believe the ads’ pitchman, the heavily German-accented Daimler Chrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche, is a fictional character.

In the continuing cultural war between authentic and artificial, fact and fiction–merging in the increasingly brackish intersections of faction and artifithenticity–the fake people seem to be winning. Real people, after all, are susceptible to the messy entanglements of bias and scandal and falliibility, whereas fictional people can be calibrated perfectly. Actual people can seem phony, like Daimler Chrysler’s too-German-to-be-real chief. And why trust somebody with years of expertise in the auto business when you can put your faith in Donkey from Shrek instead?

Maybe the most interesting finding of the EPoll study was that the most trusted "character" was Jo Frost of ABC’s Supernanny, who has already done Ragu and Pampers commercials–and who is, in point of fact, a real person. Kind of. Maybe, in our cultural state of tension between real and fake, a person from a reality show–who is simultaneously real and a persona at the same time–seems, at least in the context of TV, the most authentic of all.

In any event, this news may shed a little light on the current state of some of our celebrities. Actors, after all, are often seen in the public eye as two people: the person he or she is in life, and the person he or she plays on the screen. This may explain the continuing appeal of Tom Cruise: audiences are happy to separate the characters they pay to see him play in the movies from the increasingly-unhinged-seeming guy they see jumping on Oprah’s couch and secreting his new baby from public view.

If so, this may also promise a hard rehabilitation for Mel Gibson. When Gibson was a big-draw actor, he might have, even after his anti-Semitic tirade, been able to count on audiences to separate his movie characters from the ranting bigot in real life. But Gibson has not starred in a movie in years, and as he’s moved into the role of director, religious flashpoint and spokesman for Jesus, he’s had to exist solely as Mel Gibson, real person. With no fictional characters out there to generate goodwill for him, Gibson has to stand alone as his own worst spokescharacter.

It’s just a theory. But maybe Mel’s best chance for salvation is not rehab or consulting with Jewish leaders. Maybe he just needs to make another Lethal Weapon sequel, fast.

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