Drew Magary worked in advertising for ten years. SAD MEN is a series of stories from his time in the industry.
Casting a television commercial seems like a relatively straightforward process. You bring in actors. You have them read a script. You choose the best ones (or the best looking ones), and then we all go from there. But when I worked in advertising, the casting process almost always ended with the client being supremely pissed off. One time, I presented a casting tape to a client. The actor on screen was a bald Latino dude with a beard. He was our first choice to play the role of Guy Who Walks Into A Convenience Store. The client saw his face on the screen and immediately blew up.
CLIENT: What the hell are you trying to do to me?
ME: What? What's wrong?
CLIENT: (through gritted teeth) He looks like a goddamn terrorist!
ME: He does? But he's not a terrorist. He's just a guy. He's not even Middle Eastern.
CLIENT: I'm telling you he looks like a terrorist!
Clients always end up getting pissy over casting. There are two reasons for this. One, they were in the casting session, and you didn't pick whatever dumbfuck they liked the most. As an ad person, you're looking for the most memorable actor, which usually means someone odd-looking. The client wants the precise opposite of that. They want the blandest, most inoffensive, most forgettable white person humanly possible selling Heinz beans.
Two, they weren't in the session, and they resent only being shown two actors for each role. Casting tapes are inherently underwhelming. They look like shit. They sound like shit. It's hard to blow away people with 10 seconds of someone reading off a sheet of paper and looking like they're broadcasting live from an unfinished basement in Ohio. And since clients pay a great deal of money for casting agencies to find actors (and for the entire advertising process in general), they get very mad when the actors you present aren't topless mermaids giving an Oscar-caliber rendition of Katherine Hepburn's role from On Golden Pond.
Clients have expectations: they have vague notions of what they want an actor to look like, but no precise image of that actor. Thus, it's very easy to subvert their expectations when you present them with actual casting selects. Clients don't like having their expectations subverted. It really pisses them off. One time, we were presenting actors for a boxed chocolate commercial to a client. It was a Valentine's Day spot, and in the storyboard, a couple was kissing on the couch. And so we presented these selects where the lead actors were kissing on a couch. The client was revolted.
CLIENT: They're sucking face!
US: Well, they were kissing in the storyboard. We probably wouldn't have them kiss that much in the actual spot.
CLIENT: They're practically having sex! Can't you find anyone else?!
And it's not just an actor's looks that can throw a client for a loop. It probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that most actors are fucking horrible, and that good actors are often more expensive than their anonymous counterparts. One time, I was working as an account exec on a commercial for Luden's Cough Drops. In the ad, a bunch of women are in a department store fitting room (of course we set the ad there) when they get freaked out because this really husky, raspy voice is asking for some help with her zipper. The joke is that it's a very attractive woman who happens to be hoarse from a cold and needs a cough drop, but she sounds like some creep who's infiltrated the dressing room. So for the voice, the creatives wanted to cast Harvey Fierstein. You wouldn't even see Harvey in the ad. You would just hear his inimitable voice ("I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?!").
The problem was that Fierstein charged double scale for voice work — twice the regular union rate. That wasn't in our original production budget, and so we had to figure out how to delicately break the news to the client that the guy we wanted cost more money. Inside an ad agency, shit like this is treated with the deathly seriousness of telling someone their loved one has been mauled to death by a fucking bear. We planned. We strategized. We had a series of meetings before the meeting to figure out what would be said in the meeting to ensure it was a good meeting.
I was a pissant account exec, so all I wanted was to not get yelled at. I had been yelled at during the casting process before. I didn't enjoy it. I wanted client approval so that I could leave work and go get shitfaced.
We scheduled a big meeting in New York to present a rough cut of the ad to the client, and we brought in our big swinging dick creative director so that the client knew we thought their cough drop ad was crazy important. The only problem is that our creative director, Bob (not his real name), hadn't been with us during the strategic meetings for this particular meeting. He was coming in cold.
So the client arrived and it was them, me, my boss, my boss' boss, the creatives, the producer, and Bob. We showed them the rough cut and they liked it. Then we explained that the husky voice in the spot was none other than Harvey Fierstein.
"We like it!" said the client.
"Great," said my boss. "Now, before we go ahead and book Harvey, there is something we should tell you about him."
"He's not quite like other actors," I said.
"He's special," my boss' boss said. "Sometimes, in order to get the right fit for an ad, we have to make certain sacrifices."
"Harvey's just so right for this, you know?" I said. "It's just he's... well, he's..."
Then Bob, the creative director, decided to chime in.
"WHAT THEY'RE TRYING TO TELL YOU IS THAT HE'S GAY."
Silence. Dead fucking silence. The conference room had a floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, and at that moment I wanted to run through the glass and fall the six stories down to my death so that I could get away from the awkwardness. Our clients were a relatively conservative lot, so I half expected them to go storming out of the house burning a sack full of dildos in effigy.
"Actually Bob," my boss said, "we weren't terribly concerned about that. It's just that Harvey's double scale."
"Oh," Bob said. Then he turned to the client. "Like we said, he's very special."
So I sat there, waiting for the client to shit all over us because we dared to charge double for an actor who had the audacity to be homosexual, when the client shrugged his shoulders and said, "Okay. He's great. Let's do it." As if anyone could be surprised by the idea of Harvey Fierstein being gay. Meeting over. Battle won. Thank fucking Christ.
We got Harvey, and we ended up making a perfectly respectable cough drop ad that I can't show you because it's apparently behind some kind of Spanish paywall. But for you aspiring sad men out there, take heed. You never know what'll set a client off when it comes to acting talent, be it gayness or price or kissing or terrorist beards or weird glasses or some other goddamn thing. Casting is bizarre.