The science of the shill: Are you talkin’ to me?
It was one of the more telling weeks in the evolution of American celebrity endorsements. Robert De Niro, the two-time Oscar winner and acting icon, debuted as American Express pitchman just days before Anna Nicole Smith, the oft-incoherent reality TV star and infamous widow, invited 13 million American Music Awards viewers to admire her TrimSpa body. The juxtaposition showed off advertising’s might as culture vulture, dispatching the actor’s actor and the former Texas stripper on the same mission: sell, sell, sell.
Celebrity transcends mere fame; it has become so integral to our experience that an advertiser who ignores star power risks losing cultural relevance. At the same time, the star and the brand must match perfectly or today’s wised-up consumers won’t find it credible. So the celebrity endorsement, which began as a simple advertising strategy, has become a sort of science.
Ad agencies now screen celebrities for months to determine whether their backgrounds, lifestyles, passions, careers and most importantly, their images, fit with a company. A pretty face and a good resume mean nothing to today’s consumers if celebrities aren’t “spiritually aligned” with the brand they’re pitching or sharing an affinity with a company’s “DNA.” It’s crucial that the stars do more than represent a brand -- they must be the brand. “Articulate communicator” James Earl Jones is Verizon Wireless. “Girl’s girl” Sarah Jessica Parker is the Gap. The “ruggedly cool” Steve McQueen is TAG Heuer and Ford Mustang despite being dead 24 years. The once overweight-now-"look at me” thin Smith is TrimSpa. And De Niro, whose weathered face says “earned success,” is American Express.
“I think the most powerful celebrities become icons for something in ourselves,” says Eric Hirshberg, managing partner and executive creative director of Deutsch Inc. in New York, whose clients include DirecTV and Tommy Hilfiger. “You look at the people who speak to you the most. Morgan Freeman becomes an icon for integrity in us all. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston [were] an icon for sexy married coolness in us all. It’s sort of the ultimate aspiration.”
Today’s most successful celebrity endorsements work because they fulfill a promise to the consumer, say ad executives. Parker’s role as Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City” established her as accessible and fashion forward, the same traits channeled through the Gap’s energetic TV ads. U2’s silhouetted performance of their new single “Vertigo” in an iPod commercial -- which the band did for free -- weds U2’s innovative, ultra-hip image with Apple’s innovative, ultra-hip technology.
The connection between Smith and TrimSpa works in spite of Smith’s slurred speech and bizarre behavior, because her personal brand -- “fun, sexy and adventurous” -- aligns perfectly with TrimSpa’s brand. “Cerebral” and “articulate” aren’t relevant concepts to a company selling weight loss supplements. “Who the heck cares how she sounded?” says TrimSpa chief executive Alex Goen of Cedar Knolls, N.J. “It doesn’t really take away from the story of her incredible success with the product.”
Since November, De Niro has appeared wandering the streets of New York (“My oldest friend. My first love”) in a moody black-and-white TV ad directed by pal Martin Scorsese. “My life happens here,” De Niro grimly intones in the commercial. “My card is American Express.” His publicist Stan Rosenfield wouldn’t comment on the ad but noted that the credit card company has always supported De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival. “Things change and the people that are smart about how they deal with their careers change with the times,” says Rosenfield.
De Niro hadn’t done a commercial since his starving artist days in the 1960s. His return, say some ad execs, could signal to other actors De Niro’s caliber -- many of whom do voice-overs or shill for European and Japanese companies -- that American advertising is yet another platform for good PR.
“That’s going to change the landscape,” says Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at Los Angeles-based ad agency TBWAChiatDay. “I think now people are going to go, ‘Boy, anything’s possible.’ ”
Or perhaps they’ll just sigh, shake their heads and change the channel.
In search of ‘Holy Grail’
Celebrity endorsements are as old as advertising itself. In the late 1800s, Queen Victoria’s laundress was used to endorse Glenfield Patent Starch, Mark Twain’s mug appeared on a bag of flour and two brands of cigars, and Sarah Bernhardt’s face sold Carter’s Liver Bitters. In the late 1940s, people took note when Ronald Reagan and Lucille Ball posed in Chesterfield’s magazine ads under their “quotes” endorsing the cigarettes.
In the 1970s, Miller Lite employed dozens of sports celebrities for its “Tastes Great -- Less Filling” campaign, marking the most dramatic period of expansion ever recorded by a beer maker, according to BeerHistory.com.
High-dollar celebrity endorsements took off in the 1980s with Michael Jackson’s $50-million Pepsi deal and Michael Jordan, who helped Nike sell five times more Air Jordans than the company predicted. In the mid-1990s, Oprah Winfrey breathed new life into book publishing by endorsing novels on her show. In the last five years, she’s done the same for merchandising with the “Oprah’s Favorite Things” segments, where she doles out thousands of dollars in electronics, appliances, beauty products and clothing to her audience. In September, Winfrey made news when she distributed 276 Pontiac G6s worth $7 million. “She was the Holy Grail for us,” Pontiac’s advertising manager, Mary Kubitskey, said at the time.
Today, celebrity self-parody is a trendy way to make personalities more interesting to watch, making the star instantly more accessible, more human. A few years ago, Priceline.com employed this technique in its campaign featuring William Shatner and Old Navy used Morgan Fairchild and Joan Collins in TV spots reminiscent of 1980s sitcoms. T-Mobile used this approach in ads with Snoop Dogg text messaging Burt Reynolds, Wayne Newton and Paris Hilton.
“I think there’s more credibility to that kind of tongue-in-cheek approach,” says Jim Goodwin, vice president of T-Mobile’s integrated marketing. “We told [the stars] to wear their own clothes. And we had their help in crafting the lines.... They got to wink with the audience.”
Shatner, whose star peaked in the late 1960s with his role as Captain Kirk on TV’s “Star Trek,” revived his career 30 years later in ads that lampooned his image as “self-important, serious actor.” Today, his starring role on ABC’s “Boston Legal” hits the same campy punch lines that made the commercials such a hit. Hirshberg called this Shatner’s “Pulp Fiction” moment, referring to John Travolta’s comeback in the Quentin Tarantino film. “The lesson from that is ... when you become a self-parody you can take that and sort of embrace it,” he says.
Whatever the context of the celebrity endorsement, choosing a personality means an advertiser must scrutinize values and beliefs as closely as career trajectories. “What do they actually stand for?” asks Dan Burrier, chief creative officer and managing director of the L.A. office of the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather. “What is their real self or their screen self or their on-the-court self? And where is that going to be in six months? But most of all, does it ring true? Is this a forced fit? Or is this somebody that’s going to spiritually align with the brand? Would they actually use it? Is it actually part of their life?”
Before selecting Tiger Woods as the face of Tag Heuer in 2003, the company’s staff spent six to eight months screening celebrity “ambassadors,” measuring them against the “DNA” of the watch brand: precision, prestige and performance.
The watchmaker’s newest spokeswoman is Maria Sharapova because her beauty, competitiveness and edgy on-court behavior echo those traits. “We simply map celebrities or athletes against those three Ps,” says Daniel Lalonde, president and chief executive of LVMH Watch and Jewelry, which manages the luxury watch brand. “If you get it right, it pays for itself.”
If not, the ad becomes invisible. That’s because consumers are now experts at spotting superficiality or, as it’s known in the ad industry, an “unearned” celebrity placement. And, with a few exceptions, every endorsement is a gamble.
“With product placement or home improvement shows or the use of celebrities in voice-overs for animated movies, the whole notion of marketing and branding and the reflection of fame is so well known by kids and adults that it’s no longer a matter of ‘You could be beautiful like this if you buy the product,’ ” says Ogilvy and Mather’s Burrier. “People are so far beyond that, so sophisticated, and turn off so quickly to anything that smacks of pandering to a lower intelligence.”
Advertisers insist the proof is in the profits. After TAG Heuer launched its campaign with Woods, revenues shot up 30% and stayed there. After DirecTV’s use of “serious” A-list actors like Laurence Fishburne and Robert Duvall in a TV ad that featured them on a bare stage, reading letters from happy customers, the company had four consecutive record-breaking sales quarters. “It was this incredible combination of star power, entertainment and these passionate, satisfied customers,” says Deutsch Inc.'s Hirshberg, who worked on the campaign.
With the huge payoffs, though, come an equal chance of disaster. Scandal is always looming. Kobe Bryant went from paragon to pariah after he was charged with sexual assault, losing his contracts with McDonald’s and Nutella and extinguishing his presence in campaigns for Nike, Coca-Cola Co. and Spalding. And it’s possible a star’s own charisma will overpower the brand. No one wants to be the next Chrysler, which hung $14-million worth of hope on Celine Dion, only to watch her record sales soar past those of their cars. Whoopi Goldberg’s off-color jokes about President Bush during a John Kerry benefit last fall cost her an endorsement deal with Slim-Fast, compounding her image problems, says TBWAChiatDay’s Schwartz.
Just as the brands themselves fall in and out of fashion, so do celebrities. Jon Stewart ranked as having the greatest influence over consumers in 2004, according to a survey of 4,236 shoppers ages 13 to 65 in seven malls across the country conducted by New York public relations firm Jericho Communications. (He bumped 2003’s No. 1 -- “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s” Carson Kressley, who landed a deal that year with Midwestern clothing retailer Marshall Field’s.) Yet Stewart endorses nothing but “America,” the book he co-wrote with writers from “The Daily Show.”
In the same survey, Donald Trump, who revived his personal brand with “The Apprentice” and began appearing last summer in Visa Check Card TV ads, ranked as the worst celebrity endorser. “For your average American it may be their greatest fear to be unemployed,” says Jericho Communications’ president Eric Yaverbaum. “What he’s becoming is the icon for our greatest fear....[Consumers think] ‘I watch that bad man every week, but I don’t want to buy from him.’ ”
The professional athlete “brand” fared especially poorly in 2004 thanks to steroid scandals and the so-called basketbrawl at a Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game. During the 2002-03 season, American Express created an entire campaign around the NBA. This year, the company has chosen to “see how the rest of it unfolds,” says chief marketing officer John Hayes. Responding quickly to the public relations disaster, the NBA has launched its own re-branding campaign with a new TV spot that features Catherine Zeta-Jones (the face of T-Mobile and Elizabeth Arden) chirping over her newfound passion for basketball as U2’s single “Vertigo” plays over clips of the sport.
All this uncertainty, coupled with the increasingly fragmented market, motivates advertisers to enlist celebrities who have achieved such mythic status that their integrity is virtually never questioned. A-listers often fit this profile. Nicole Kidman earned about $3 million for her role as the world’s most famous woman in director Baz Luhrmann’s commercial for Chanel No. 5. Johnny Depp looks thoughtful in a print campaign for Mont Blanc (albeit for charity). And Uma Thurman replaced Scarlett Johansson who replaced Jennifer Lopez as the face of Louis Vuitton.
Even the most well-established actors, however, are just one DUI away from a spectacular fall from grace -- reason enough for an advertiser to chose the safest route, that of the dead celebrity endorser. In the last three years, Marilyn Monroe has pitched Volkswagen, Nestle’s After Eight dinner mints, a Brazilian cable network, a Brazilian drug manufacturer and the Spanish airline Iberia. She’s also the “signature blond” in Visa’s Signature Card campaign, which also features Frank Sinatra. Humphrey Bogart is the new face of Longines watches. Last year, he appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a Diet Coke ad.
Here, scandal is not only irrelevant, it’s finite, their images frozen in time. And best of all for advertisers, these posthumous legends possess the most elusive celebrity trait -- one that’s often apparent only after death -- credibility.
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The sign-me-ups and the no-sales
Just as the brands themselves fall in and out of fashion, so do celebrities. Here are last year’s winners and losers.
Celebrities most likely to inspire buying
1. Jon Stewart
2. Oprah Winfrey
3. Bill Clinton
4. Sean “P.Diddy” Combs
5. Martha Stewart
Celebrities least likely to inspire buying
1. Donald Trump
2. Dick Cheney
3. Tyrell Owens
4. Teresa Heinz Kerry
5. Ashlee Simpson
Source: Jericho Communications survey of 4,236 shoppers in seven malls nationwide