When conceptualizing the first commercial for 23andMe, ad agency Arnold had a challenge: destigmatize genetic testing while communicating what the company actually does. "There's a clear division if you ask people, 'Do you want to take the test?' " says Arnold's chief creative officer, Aaron Griffiths. "My mother says, 'I don't want to know when I'm going to die.' It's a very psychological thing."
To play down the sci-fi element, Griffiths and Co. eschewed the typical imagery of a camera zooming into the human body to focus on a strand of DNA, and instead relied on simple, friendly art—plus, actual human beings. The actors featured in the 60-second spot—which began airing widely in August—were required to go through the testing themselves. (None of them balked at the idea.) The script was written afterward, with the actors opening up about their own genetic discoveries. "Faking it was not an option," Griffiths says. "We encouraged them not to act, but to really react to their results. It was the first time they were talking about them, and they were having emotional responses to what they might mean."
Griffiths also drew inspiration from art history, particularly self-portraiture. 23andMe, he notes, is just another way to go beneath the surface, a "promise that you can actually know so much more about yourself," he says. He walks us through three frames of the ad:
1. The eye guy
"The idea was to bring the DNA to the surface to show how it reflects in your physical appearance."
2. The Bar Guy
"It was important that they be interacting with their data and DNA, because without 23andMe, you can't. You can't manipulate [the data], but you can go in, get a better understanding, and play with [it]."
3. The Older Guy
"He found out he has a high possibility of sickle-cell anemia. At this point in the spot, we're transitioning to what this means for them."
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A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.