What makes Scarlett shill?

More celebrity ads
Times Staff Writer

It was Scarlett Johansson’s Disney World ad that got us thinking. We’ve become accustomed to celebrities hawking products--Heather Locklear has amassed a huge body of work in hair dye commercials, Paris Hilton famously pimped Carl’s Jr. and William Shatner will sell anything that won’t get him sued--but Scarlett?

She’s not a has-been! She’s not desperate for work or attention! She can’t need the money! So why is the actress’s pretty mug hanging in drugstores as the face of L’Oreal Paris? Why did she agree to don a Cinderella gown in a campaign for Disney theme parks? Why is she featured in ads for Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Gap and Mt. Rainer coffee? Why design clothes for Reebok? We thought real celebrities only agreed to PSAs or ads shown in foreign locales. Have times changed?

To find out we turned to Noreen Jenney, founder of Celebrity Endorsement Network. For the past 27 years Jenney has helped advertisers like Neutrogena, Frito-Lay and Anheuser-Busch convince celebs like Bianca Jagger, Michael Jordan, Dr. Ruth, and Candice Bergen to sell their products. Will all these ads hurt Scarlett Johansson’s career? I thought it was taboo for stars to do a ton of endorsements.

NJ: Well, I think it goes in cycles. It used to be stigmatized and used to be that major film stars would only do overseas ads, but with the growth of the Internet there is no such thing anymore as only overseas. Every ad becomes worldwide the minute it hits the Internet. And obviously as bigger stars do commercials more of them will do it. There are still some holdouts that won’t do on camera ads, but most of them will do unidentified voiceovers. Companies will pay a fortune for that. Is it really worth it for an advertiser to get only a celebrity’s voice?

NJ: It is because they generally pick a celebrity with a recognizable voice so they figure people will know who it is. They also use it for internal excitement with the sales staff. They’ll go to corporate meeting and say we have so-and-so doing the advertising and the sales staff gets excited and sells twice the volume. You’d be shocked and amazed at what these major advertisers pay for unidentified voice-overs. Do stars that are making movies really need this money? How much are we talking about?

NJ: It’s not what you’ll make on a movie. A $1-million to $2-million commercial name is usually a $15 million movie name, but the advertising money is definitely in the seven figures and sometimes multiples of that. Sometimes an advertiser will do two years for a million, so they only pay half a million each year. There are all different kinds of ways to structure the deals. How have celebrity ads changed since you started doing this work?

NJ: The money has gotten much bigger, but that is true in every field. These days people will do endorsements who never would have considered it in the past. Part of that is because the production quality is so high. So maybe a celebrity does a print campaign because Annie Liebovitz is shooting it. Everyone wants to be shot by her so that’s an incentive, or maybe a star wants to work with a particular film director and he’s directing the commercial. Can doing a bunch of advertising hurt your reputation?

NJ: You can be overexposed, and you can do too much, and that starts diluting your value. The public doesn’t remember what they saw you doing because you’ve done so much. The advertiser can get hurt that way more than the celebrity. Unless you are doing something where the product has a huge problem. Sometimes this will happen with infomercials--if you do a vitamin or a diet product and there are lawsuits, that can be a negative--but generally with the upscale endorsements and product lines there is very little negative about that. The celebrities who won’t do it say it is selling out, but even those that won’t do the on camera are doing the voice over work. You can get high six figures, sometimes for no more than a couple of days in the studio. It’s very easy work. There are very few celebrities who won’t do voice work. So why do you think that Scarlett Johannson is doing so much advertising?

NJ: There is a lot of insecurity in actors and actresses, so there is a strike while the iron is hot theory. Also I think it is very difficult to turn down the kind of money that these companies are offering with the minimal amount of work involved. They do earn a lot on a film, but how long till the next film? Not too many celebrities are lined up with movies for the next 10 years and it’s very difficult to walk away from $1 million for a year of exposure, and realistically just a day or two of your time. It is tough to pass on that.