Real stories by real people

Real people are everywhere now. They’re on our televisions. In our ads. On our YouTube channels. But, back in the ‘90s, real people were a novelty.

Between 1993 and 2001, the BBC broadcasted Video Nation – a revolving diary series spotlighting the lives of normal people. Inspired by the Mass Observation project of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s (in which everyday people recorded their thoughts, feelings, and experiences), members of the public were given camcorders and invited to record aspects of their daily lives. The footage was then edited into short films and aired before Newsnight.

At The Story 2018 conference last month, Mandy Rose, one of the co-producers of the project, shared highlights from the show as well as insights into how they made it.

Watching the footage now, it’s striking just how natural and unforced it is. Granted an open platform, the participants disclosed their hopes, their fears and their insecurities; from a pensioner lamenting his ageing appearance, to a pregnant mum speculating on her child’s future.

One can only imagine what it was like to watch such intimate scenes at the time – before YouTube made ‘user-generated content’ commonplace. But, unlike YouTube, it was very much a collaboration: participants had the final say over the edit and were closely involved throughout.

Together, this combination of skilled documentarians and everyday people results in a more revelatory, more ‘human’, output than if the participants had simply uploaded the content themselves.

And I think this is why it feels so much more authentic than what passes for user-generated content these days. Rather than an incontinent splurge, Video Nation shorts are tightly constructed, with the human truth brought front and centre – yet another reminder that ‘authentic’ representations are often more constructed than they first appear.

What could this mean for brands? Don’t sacrifice storytelling at the altar of the ‘real’. User-generated content requires the same craft and rigour as any other. And, curiously, feels a lot more real.