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Some Product Endorsements May Be Hard for Consumers to Swallow

You have probably seen Michael Jackson moon walk. You might have seen his hair catch on fire while filming a TV spot. Maybe you even saw him attack a car with a tire iron in a recent music video.

But there is one thing you’ve most certainly never seen Jackson do: Sip a Pepsi.

Such trivialities do not bother Pepsi one bit. Last week, the soda giant announced that it was once again turning to Michael Jackson to promote its soft drinks worldwide. Just because Pepsi has paid Jackson an estimated $25 million over the span of three endorsement deals, that doesn’t mean he actually has to drink the stuff, does it?

“It’s not important to us whether he drinks it,” Pepsi spokesman Barry Holt said. “He has millions of fans who drink it.” What’s more, Holt pointed out, Jackson “has a Pepsi vending machine at his home that we supply. We presume he serves it to his guests.”

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So, what’s good enough for Jackson’s guests--and the general public--might not be good enough for Jackson. But the question at hand--and very possibly at the heart of all advertising--is this: Why does Madison Avenue believe that it can hoodwink consumers into believing the very things that it knows are not true?

“When Michael Jackson comes dancing down the stairs singing about Pepsi, people have a right to presume he drinks it,” said longtime Los Angeles adman and radio commentator Stan Freberg. The fact that he doesn’t, Freberg said, “gives advertising a black eye.”

Certainly, Jackson--who spurns Pepsi in favor of vitamin-fortified liquids--is not the first celebrity to promote a product he doesn’t use. But the pop star’s latest link with Pepsi is surely the most visible example of marketing gone haywire.

For years, it was generally accepted by consumers that when celebrities represented products in commercials, they also used them. No one ever doubted that comedian and longtime Texaco spokesman Bob Hope filled up at the pump with the Texaco brand. And veteran American Telephone & Telegraph spokesman Cliff Robertson insists that the only reason he agreed to start pitching Ma Bell in the first place was because he always liked the company and its service.

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But these days, celebrities rarely have such strong associations with the products they promote. A growing number, in fact, have none at all.

While actor Don Johnson was being paid to promote Pepsi, a photo in People magazine showed him downing a Diet Coke. While promoting beef and L’Oreal hair products, actress Cybill Shepherd was quoted--her publicist says misquoted--saying she didn’t eat red meat or dye her hair. Likewise, shortly after actress Meryl Streep appeared in an American Express ad last year, a newspaper article quoted her saying that she did the ad so American Express would make a donation to her daughter’s school--where the ad was filmed. Streep later denied saying that.

Although Cher has appeared in numerous ads for Bally’s Holiday Spa health clubs, don’t expect to find her pumping iron there. “She has her own gym and workout room at home,” Cher’s spokeswoman, Mara Buxbaum, said. “It’s more like she’s a spokeswoman for a regimen of exercise.”

Last year, shortly after master chef Julia Child played a bit role in a Nike TV spot, she confided in an interview that she actually wore New Balance sneakers. But Nike pointed out that Child’s role in their commercial wasn’t to endorse the sneakers, but to add to the humor.

Then there’s the Philadelphia 76ers’ former star, Darryl Dawkins, who shocked Nike executives when--while under contract to Nike--he walked onto the basketball court in the 1982 playoffs laced up in Pony sneakers. He’d signed contracts with both firms.

“It wasn’t really embarrassing--it was funny,” Nike spokeswoman Liz Dolan said. “It’s an example of how, if you’re not careful, this endorsement thing can be so misleading.”

In particular, athletes on the decline will often sign with anyone willing to pay them. “When their popularity wanes, so does their ethics,” said Dave Burns, a Chicago-based sports marketer.

These days, many celebrities simply auction themselves to the highest bidder. Most of them don’t care if they’re hoisting cans of Coke or Pepsi--or strapping on Nikes or Reeboks. What matters is endorsement money. What doesn’t matter is integrity.

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“It’s theater of the absurd advertising,” Freberg said. “I can’t imagine creating a campaign for someone who doesn’t use the product. It’s not only deceitful--it’s stupid.”

Beyond that, some advertising experts say, when Madison Avenue warps truth for the sake of image, it denigrates the very fabric of society.

“People grow up and assume a certain amount of bull in advertising is part of life,” said Ivan Preston, a University of Wisconsin professor who specializes in advertising ethics. “As a result, advertising contributes to this tendency toward falsity in our society as a whole.”

Executives at Pepsi don’t even pretend that their highest paid pitchman would actually swallow a mouthful of the soda. But what are they asking consumers to swallow by presenting Jackson as their worldwide wunderkind ?

“We’re not in business with him to have him drink our product,” said Bill Katz, who oversees Pepsi advertising internationally for the New York ad agency BBDO Worldwide. “We’re in business with him to attach ourselves to his character.”

For his part, Freberg said, about the only thing that he believes the animal-loving Jackson could convincingly advertise is “food for chimpanzees or llamas.”

But Jackson’s disdain for drinking Pepsi may be “a mere inconvenience” for Pepsi, said Jeffery Goodby, partner at the San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. “It’s still amazingly seductive and fun to watch Michael Jackson do a Pepsi commercial even though you know he doesn’t drink the stuff.”

Briefly. . .

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The Los Angeles agency Horlick Levin Advertising was selected by Torrance-based Phonemate Inc. to handle the launch of its private answering machine advertising. . . . The Los Angeles agency Dailey & Associates will be adding employees as a result of last week’s $30-million Sizzler ad account win. . . . The sales promotion account for the California Lottery is expected to be awarded to the Irvine agency Alcone Sims O’Brien. . . . The Western States Advertising Agencies Assn. will host a dinner March 4 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the “Leaders of the Year,” Bob Kresser and Jean Craig, founders of the Santa Monica agency Kresser/Craig. . . . The Los Angeles agency Alpern, Langer & Strong will handle marketing for National Medical Enterprises’ USC University Hospital. . . . The Los Angeles Public Library has named Saatchi & Saatchi DFS/Pacific as its pro bono agency. . . . Kielhorn & Associates, a full-service ad agency with expertise in health care services, opened this month in Los Angeles. . . . Team One Advertising of El Segundo has announced an affiliation with the Honolulu marketing consultants Garvey & Gramann. . . . The Newport Beach marketing firm Arthur I. Rothafel & Associates has been named to oversee marketing for the Los Angeles medical management firm MediCorp.


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