Northern Virginia businesses are riding the reality TV wave to market their wares.
By Nancy Croft Baker
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, and Donna Felder is taking a break from her duties as office manager of a bustling healthcare practice in Maurepas, La. Staring intently at her computer screen, she hits one of her bookmarks and is transported to Loudoun County, Va., where she watches a group of young people race down the Potomac River in search of a prize.
Felder chuckles as her favorite contestant, James Wilson, whoops as his raft shoots a Class 3 rapid. “I’ve been watching this reality show every week since it began airing in September,” she says.
The reality show to which Felder refers is actually a series of seven-minute unscripted ad videos for Visit Loudoun, the county’s convention and visitors’ bureau. She followed the link on a friend’s Facebook page and got hooked after the first episode. “I couldn’t wait to see what the contestants would do next,” says Felder, 43. “Every challenge featured a different tourist spot, and it looked like a lot of fun. Loudoun is definitely on my radar screen for vacation next summer.”
That’s just the reaction Jeremy Harvey was aiming for when he conceived the “Get Lost in Loudoun” series. “I was inspired by watching ‘The Amazing Race,’” says Harvey, vice president of marketing for Leesburg-based Visit Loudoun. “Every time I watch the show, I want to go to the places where the contestants have been. Then it occurred to me that we could do the same thing right here in Loudoun.”
Reality Bandwagon Goes Local
With millions of viewers tuning in to dozens of new reality shows each year, it’s no wonder that a growing number of business owners in Northern Virginia are posting their own unscripted videos on the web and local cable networks.
“The reality show craze is out of control right now on the national scene,” notes Aba Bonney-Kwawu, president of D.C.-based marketing and public relations firm The Aba Agency. “Reality TV allows us to indulge our inner voyeur to see how other people live. We identify with them, and you build a sort of relationship with them. So it’s a natural progression for businesses to want to tap into that as a way to generate a loyal clientele.”
Kwawu, 36, points to the phenomenal success of “DC Cupcakes,” a reality show on TLC about sisters Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis of Georgetown Cupcake. “When my husband’s boss traveled from New York to visit D.C. last year, it was cold, she was very pregnant and it had been an extremely long day, but all she wanted to do was go to Georgetown Cupcake,” Kwawu recalls. “She’s a big fan of the show, and the highlight of her trip was getting one of their cupcakes. I’ve seen people stand in line for two hours in the rain to get into that place.”
Faith Poe hopes to create that same avid fan following for client Dave Gambale, owner of Freedom Bail Bonding in Fairfax. “The Real Ride to Freedom,” which airs on COX Cable Video on Demand and YouTube, takes viewers into the daily world of bailing people out of jail. A cross between “The Office” and “Night Court,” the episodes feature Gambale’s eclectic staff and colorful cast of characters, who wander in and out of his office at all hours of the day and night.
“People have been telling me for years that I should do a reality show, because you can’t believe the craziness that goes on here,” says Gambale, a hard-boiled former Marine drill instructor with a soft heart for the down-trodden. He had been advertising his five locations primarily via Spanish-language radio spots and signage on his fleet vehicles. Poe, however, saw a wider market for Freedom Bail Bonding and sent a film crew to capture a day in the life of Gambale and friends. The first two episodes are steadily gaining viewership with a third episode scheduled to begin shooting this spring. Poe also is pitching the series to national cable networks, such as the Discovery Channel.
Viewer Emily Blease tuned in to “The Real Ride to Freedom” after a friend sent her the YouTube link. “I was curious to see what that world was all about,” says Blease, a 24-year-old college student who works part time in Fairfax. “The subject matter turned out to be pretty interesting, and I like the combination of unscripted interaction with the on-camera interviews. I feel like I know some of the regular characters. It doesn’t seem like a marketing ploy to me.” Although Blease says it’s unlikely she would ever need Gambale’s service, “he’d be the first one I’d call if I ever found myself in jail,” she laughs. “Dave seems to genuinely care about his clients.”
Gambale, in fact, hopes “The Real Ride to Freedom” transcends mere advertising. “What I really want to do is give people hope and a second chance,” he says. “When people get arrested, they’re in a bad place emotionally and spiritually.” Contrary to the perception that bail bonders are rough-and-tumble bounty hunters, Gambale and his staff offer advice to the wayward, food to the homeless and a place to regroup after lockup. In Episode Two, a former drug addict and frequent customer shares a moving story of how Gambale helped him turn his life around. “I really see this as a ministry,” remarks Gambale, 49.
The series has been good for business, too, notes Gina Castro, Gambale’s assistant. “A lot of viewers now recognize us on the street, and the advertising numbers are looking great.” Media coverage has picked up as well, including a Washington Post Magazine cover story, a segment on CBS affiliate WUSA9 and numerous radio interviews.
Ad-weary Viewers Embrace New Genre
“I’m excited about this trend,” says Ted Smoot, a Sterling-based IT professional who plans to launch his own Internet reality show next spring. “I think everyone is tired of the loud, obnoxious, in-your-face commercials over the last 20 years.”
Smoot, 35, began following the “Get Lost in Loudoun” series as a means of reconnecting with his home county after years of traveling outside the Commonwealth. “I was looking for things to do on the weekend and stumbled upon the series,” he says. “I really enjoyed watching the foursome compete in a variety of challenges at venues I might like to visit.” Smoot’s favorites? “I loved watching them trying to catch a pig at Great Country Farms in Bluemont, paintball at Pev’s in Aldie and throw pots with Redskins tightend Chris Cooley at Glenfiddich Farm Pottery in Leesburg. The contestants were believable, and the activities looked like something I’d enjoy.”
Attracting a younger demographic was high on Harvey’s mind when the 40-year-old began planning the reality-style marketing videos. “People typically associate Loudoun County with relaxing tours of wineries and Civil War battlefields,” he explains. “We decided to take it up a notch and show some adventure. We wanted to capture average 20-somethings discovering Loudoun.”
A cast of four contestants and a Ted Allen-esque host was selected from among 35 people who responded to Visit Loudoun’s casting call last spring.
“I had never heard of Loudoun County and wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but I had a blast,” says Haley Phillips, an office manager for a financial services firm in New York. She was joined by Austin, Texas-based poet James Wilson and videographer Andrew McDonald as well as graphic designer Jolyn Janis, who hails from Ocean City, Md.
“The four of us completely forgot the cameras were rolling and really got caught up in the competition,” says Phillips, 26. “I wasn’t looking to become a reality star, but seeing myself on video has been a lot of fun.”
While the thought of becoming a local reality star may appeal to some business owners, PR and branding guru Kwawu advises them to be aware of the caveats before plunging into that world. “Today’s consumers are extremely smart. They value authenticity and can quickly spot a fake,” she says. “They want to see the good as well as the bad, so business owners should be ready to expose their flaws to the public.”
Indeed, when “The Real Ride to Freedom” first posted on YouTube last summer, Gambale was the target of some scorching comments, albeit mostly from competing bonding firms. “It didn’t bother me,” Gambale shrugs. He adds, “You’re always going to have critics in anything you do. People who take time to watch the whole show can see we’re the real deal.”
Kwawu also warns business owners to avoid blatant product hocking in their productions. “Consumers have gotten very sharp about spotting product placements,” she says. “A subtle approach is best.” Like when reality star Kate Gosselin made a cameo appearance on “DC Cupcakes” in Season Two. The divorced mega-mom of eight spotted a handsome passerby outside the bakery and decided to meet him via an impromptu cupcake sample. Turns out he had a gluten allergy. Whether staged or serendipitous, the encounter proved to be the perfect opportunity to mention the bakery’s gluten-free selections. Just in case viewers were dubious, an on-camera interview revealed the gentleman had no idea he had just been wooed by a famous reality star. He thought she was the bakery owner. Ouch.
Whether it’s cupcakes, catering or bail bonding, Northern Virginians can expect to see more of their favorite local proprietors on the air.
PURE Advertising’s Faith Poe, for example, is working with another client on a reality series, while Ashburn-based videographer Nicholas Cambata of 8112 Studios has several productions in the works and has been approached by a growing number of local bloggers, entrepreneurs and entertainers who want to take their enterprises to the airwaves.
That’s just fine with folks like Ted Smoot. “I don’t think our appetite for reality video is going to be satisfied any time soon,” he says. “Whether it’s a show or an ad, it’s equally entertaining.”
Are You Ready For Reality?
Nicholas Cambata, owner of 8112 Studios, was not surprised to see one his potential clients on a national reality series recently. He had been approached by a jet-setting couple wanting to bolster their business by chronicling their escapades and philanthropic endeavors via their own reality show. But when it came down to focus and financing, their sparkle quickly fizzled. Cambata decided to turn them down.
“Clearly, they were determined to get on a reality show,” he says, but their negative portrayal on the national series may not have worked in their favor.
Specializing in documentaries, music videos and reality productions, Cambata, 31, says he has turned down more clients wishing to get on reality TV than he has accepted. He explains, “Most people are totally unprepared for the reality of reality.”
Be sure you have a clear story to share. “I tell potential clients that if they can’t describe their show in 15 seconds, it’s probably not worth watching.”
Be well capitalized. “People have no idea how much work and expense goes into video production. A five-minute clip can easily run five figures.”
Show plenty of conflict and cliffhangers. “Nobody wants to watch someone who tries to seem perfect. Viewers tune in to see people behaving badly and how they resolve their differences. Conflict and cliffhangers keep them coming back.”
Keep it real. “If you don’t normally interact with colorful characters, you can’t fabricate them. People respond to the development of relationships, and consumers are very savvy about authenticity.”
Let it all hang out. “If you’re uncomfortable with cameras watching your every move and you don’t like public criticism, this is not a good venture for you.”