How The Car Companies Track Down Testimonials

Just How Real Is Reality Advertising?

If you’re a car enthusiast who loves a particular auto brand, then Danya Solomon wants to hear from you. Solomon, 30, from the San Francisco Bay Area, styles herself as a “people detective” for car companies.

She tracks down drivers for so-called “docu-mercial” advertising campaigns for major companies, including Toyota and Ford, in what she sees as a growing trend toward automakers using real drivers to advertise their products.

“Basically our job is go out into a city -- any city -- and find the demographic that the company is looking for. We need to find all walks of life who drive these different products and interview them. Our job is to get to know their life stories.”

Those stories become the national advertising campaigns on TV, in print and on the Internet.

Solomon works mainly with production companies that have been contracted by large clients or by advertising agencies. It’s a rigorous, non-stop lifestyle that has her crisscrossing the nation in search of enthusiasts.

“On the job we don’t stop for public holidays, storms or even tornados. We’ll be out there in parking lots in storms or blistering heat asking people to come talk to us. While it’s great to work for big clients, we work for the love of what we do.”

She uses car fan Web sites and club meets to track down potential interviewees, and relies on word of mouth from local enthusiasts and contacts, but some of her methods for finding the right people are “secret.”

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Solomon’s first job entailed finding someone “young, good-looking and single” who lived in California’s Napa wine region. Tooling about in wine country gave her a certain enthusiasm for the job and she now runs her own L.A.-based casting company in a “growing niche” in the auto advertising market.

It’s not all smooth sailing, though. One time in rural Georgia working on a Ford truck campaign, an interviewee dropped out at the last moment. Solomon desperately needed to find a driver of a large 2500 or 3500 Super Duty truck, so she headed to where she thought her target demographic would most likely hang out: A pool hall.

“We’d lost a huge piece of our shoot, but I said there’s no point in giving up. Driving home I saw all these trucks opposite a dive bar. I veer off, jump out of the car, and inside there are like 50 of these big burly drivers. I walk in, make an announcement and that’s how I found a truck driver. A lovely man who turned out perfect for us.”

Solomon worked on Ford’s “swap-your-ride” campaign that involved not only finding a Ford enthusiast but one willing to play a trick on their spouse or partner by swapping their vehicle for a week’s test-drive of a Ford product without their prior knowledge. She says the element of surprise required establishing a large degree of trust with her subjects.

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For Toyota, she had to find loyal drivers that were willing to tell how their vehicle fit into their lives. One story was about a California family who had passed down a Camry from several generations of children, taking some of the kids from their first day of school to the prom. “In that job they had to trust us,” she says, “Because they don’t know who we are. It takes a lot of trust for people to be that open with us.”

Sona Iliffe-Moon, marketing communications supervisor at Toyota, says this “Auto-Biography” campaign on national TV, on the web and on Facebook, was successful and “met our expectation on the high end.“

“Two themes that were genuine and resonated were the ‘first time buyer’ theme for Corolla and the ‘family pass-along’ theme with Camry,” she said. “It’s worth noting that 80 percent of the Toyotas sold in America over the past 20 years are still on the road today.”

Solomon says talking to drivers around the States in both urban and rural settings has given her some surprising insights into the tricky business of car-buyer demographics.

“Sometimes demographics we're given don't actually fit what we've found. We found that larger SUV’s that are sometimes marketed toward the younger demographic are actually coveted by older families.

“I would love to put together my real-world findings and present it as demographics to the car companies themselves. There’s no better way to find out about demographics than going out into the field.”

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