I’m a celebrity (in an ad), get me out of here

Jenson Button

Why do we love some ads featuring celebrities and hate others?  Is resorting to celebrity endorsement the lowest form of advertising, a substitute for a real idea, or can using a celebrity make an idea and a brand come alive?  And if so, what’s the secret to getting it right?

I don’t presume to know all the answers, but I recently had cause to ponder upon the subject.  An idea I had researched had received a lukewarm reception, partly owing to the choice of celebrity.  So, here are some thoughts about what can make or break the use of a celebrity in ads, mostly drawn from experience, having looked at many advertising ideas using celebrities over the last 20+ years, but also just a bit of musing.

I would suggest the perceived suitability of celebrities for brand advertising depends on several factors.  The following may be most of them.

1   Do they have a high profile?

Is the celebrity really a celebrity?  Do we see them a lot in the media – or have we in the recent past?  Do they appear on the front of newspapers and magazines, on chat shows and game shows?  Are they someone mates talk about in the pub or women gossip about over coffee?  Do they transcend their field of endeavour, with their fame extending into the broader public realm – are they in some way a part of the cultural fabric?  At the most basic level, do we recognise them if we see them, are they familiar to us?

Brilliant actor as he is, Daniel Day Lewis would probably fail on this test.  Being an intelligent man who is happy in his own skin and has a life, he doesn’t court publicity and is very happy out of the public eye.  Many people probably wouldn’t even recognise him.  The contrast with Jordan is obvious: she may be severely emotionally damaged but she’s about as high profile as you can get.  In sport, a similar contrast would exist between Jenson Button and Wayne Rooney.  Interestingly, though, the celebrity’s profile doesn’t even have to be current to work.  Neither Michael Schumacher nor Eric Cantona currently has a high profile, but they have in the past.  They were widely known, even to those who nothing about F1 or football.  They are both iconic, almost legendary figures; while a distinctive appearance and accent help recognition.

2   How much they are liked?

This is a key consideration, but is itself informed by many factors, amongst which are:

– whether they are respected and admired

– whether they have a clearly understood, strong personality

– whether they are seen as charismatic

– whether they are seen as an interesting person per se – would they be entertaining company down the pub or at a dinner party.

To take the example of Jenson Button again, it’s difficult to know whether to like him, because people have no sense of his personality, rarely if ever seeing him speak outside of a Grand Prix weekend.  So people think he’s probably a  bit dull, lacking in charisma. While ‘sports personality’ is often a contradiction in terms, racing drivers are particularly tricky.  It’s a very male sport, is fantastically dull unless (like me) you’re a dweeb, and most of the drivers really are dull. The days of James Hunt are long gone.

However, a celebrity doesn’t have to be liked to work.  In the right ad, a widely reviled public figure could work.  I doubt John Prescott has many fans, yet he worked in the Money Supermarket ad.  Doubtless there are many ads where unpopular celebs have been effective, much of which has to do with the following points.

3   Are they playing to their perceived personality?

Personalities are often chosen for ads because their perceived personality fits with the brand or the creative idea; they just don’t work if they are playing against type.  Unless, of course, THAT is the creative idea!

4   Are they well integrated into the creative idea?

I suspect celebs work less well when they are “bolted on”, where their presence is a gratuitous tactic to gain attention and their personality has no fit with the brand or the creative idea.  However, while using someone famous for no reason other than their fame is of course the lowest form of celebrity endorsement, I guess is some cases it can “work” in terms of how the advertiser defines effectiveness.  Kerry Katona for Asda comes to mind.  But, maybe the target audience did like her, in spite of themselves.  So, I guess she would have scored on ‘profile’ at the least, and maybe on likeability too.

Very often, when consumers criticise one aspect of an ad, such as the choice of celeb, it’s symptomatic of a problem with the underlying idea – and that this one element actually could have worked fine if the creative idea worked.

5   Is the celeb doing something that feels credible?

This is a tricky area.  Often celebs don’t work when they are endorsing a product that consumers have no belief they actually use – they are seen as “just doing it for the money”.  However, the same celeb might work if they were being used to advertise the product in a different role, as brand spokesperson or simply as a character within the narrative, for example, rather than pretending to use it.  It strikes me that the formerly great chef Marco Pierre White is a prime example of where it went horribly wrong: Knorr was bad enough, but Bernard Matthews?!!  Did anyone really believe he ever used these products?

6   How good is their performance?

Few celebs are great actors and a stilted performance can destroy the credibility of their role in the ad.  I give you, once again: Jenson Button –  nice chap, great driver, shit actor.

It strikes me that Jamie for Sainsbury’s hit the sweet spot on just about every one of the above points.  He had a huge profile, almost everyone loved him, he has a great personality, he was totally integrated into the creative idea ‘Try something new today’, and he was doing what he does best: bringing cooking to the people.  And I would guess Cheryl Cole is a great choice for L’Oreal.  The convicted assault and batterer has massive profile, is the nation’s darling and, since her looks count for more than her ‘talent’, talking about her hair has credibility.

However, like any ‘rules’ in the world of advertising, those above exist only to be broken.  Coming soon: Bashar al-Assad endorses Amnesty International.

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