Celebrities have a long standing relationship with advertising. That is to say, they have a long standing relationship with money. From John Wayne’s wheezy endorsement of Camels, to Orson Welles’ slurred campaign for Paul Masson to Scarlett Johansson’s winsome Eternity ad, star power has always attracted the marketing men for that instant, orgasmic hit of recognition.
Whether or not the presence of a star translates into sales is debatable. Some studies have indicated that ads containing ‘ordinary people’ are for more effective in the actual selling of items. However, there have been some shrewd moves, particularly in the 80s. Pepsi’s came up with with era defining ads starring Michael J Fox and Michael Jackson, propelling the company toward a genuine rivalry with mega-fizz brand Coca-Cola. Such campaigns were produced on record budgets, with tens of millions of dollars poured into the production of adverts for the first time. These campaigns raised the stakes for celebrity endorsements and showed that the cache given to a product, merely by association with a popular star, was well worth the money spent. In Jackson’s case, the sell-out was total, re-wording Billie Jean with the immortal line ‘Taste the thrill of the day / Feel the Pepsi way’. Jackson helped set the bar (low enough) by making it okay to suspend credibility for the duration of the bank to bank transfer.
It would be wrong to assume that all celebrity ads have been worthless and embarrassing. Notable efforts include the Michael Mann / Mercedes Benz mock trailer for the never to be released Benicio Del Toro film, ‘Lucky Star’. The result was thoroughly convincing and only in retrospect does the Mercedes have a conspicuous prominence in the trailer. Another motor brand, BMW, produced a series of short films with directors as notable as Wong Kar Wai and John Frankenheimer, starring Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen. Such examples have a distinct artistic impulse separate from the product being hocked. As usual with David Lynch, it’s impossible to tell whether or not he is ironically pricking us or laughing at us for not being able to tell, but his recent work for Gucci is terribly good. Without doubt, however, the most marketable and effective teaming of star/director/brand has to be the Michael Jordan/Spike Lee/Nike ads of the 80s and 90s, turning profits and confirming the seductive force of teaming artistic power with star glamour. These groundbreaking, direct skits were a breath of fresh air on the melodramatic fair that had come before.
The calculations are pretty shallow but the psychology is interesting because it is based on something as intimate as trust. We must believe in a product to buy it: believe it works, believe we’re not being lied to about it’s claims, believe it’s better than its often similar rivals. The way we are asked to swallow it all is by listening to the advice of people we admire, people we feel have a certain credibility and integrity. This is manipulation on the most basic level, but one we are all very happy to be seduced by. The screwing is consensual and, ultimately, everyone leaves the room with something to take home.
My personal favourite aspect of celebrity endorsements are the sins committed abroad that stars hope, foolishly, we will never see. There are some absolute gems which show celebrities to be absolute whores, ready to sell what they’ve got to the highest bidder. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s insane turn for the energy drink Vfuyy, making him appear like some kind of grotesque, cruel spirit. A whole host of stars can be seen in such alien circumstances, totally out of synch with our perceived ownership of their corporate identities.
Sometimes the valiant marketeers get it wrong, entrust their product to the wrong talent in terms of popular appeal. McDonalds and Nutella must have been wringing their hands when Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. There are other celebrities who just do not seem to fit well with the product they have been paid to fluff, like walking porker Ray Winstone’s Optivita jaunt, which is brilliantly parodied by Dead Ringers.
It’s hard to know if a campaign will ever be a hit but there are some sure style bets. Johnny Depp’s endorsement of Mont Blanc is a neat association, as is Tiger Woods with Tag and Ryan Philippe’s work in a stunning Armani campaign. These astute, style conscious choices show an awareness of the brand and also of the star and reflect a more classical, less aggressive form of marketing that can live well alongside rarefied qualities in media, artistic integrity and self-respect. In the ever-increasing world, however, as brands become ever more cautious and sensitive to the tremors of the publics volatile twitches, the future of celebrity advertising is likely to be the kind of harmless, freakishly unreal middle ground occupied by Nicole Kidman.
What are your favourite celebrity ads? Let us know in the comments section.