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January 7, 2010
Tiger, a Little Tail, and the Marketing Beast

Are celebrity endorsements the best route for marketers these days?

A study done by UC Davis economists suggests that shareholders of Tiger Woods' sponsors lost $5-12 billion in the few weeks after his car accident. At first, I thought that the losses were simply due to the simply the cyclical nature of stocks — but the study’s authors insist the losses are directly related to Woods. Either way, that’s a lot of lost cash because a man played with his putter away from the golf course.

Some sponsors can dump Woods and be OK, some would have a tougher time disassociating themselves. Accenture’s services are, at best, only tangentially related to a pro golfer, but Nike has a line of products that feature Tiger’s name and image. And this recent turn of events isn’t what they signed up for.

So what, if anything, do marketers in 2010 gain from endorsements and sponsorships by celebrities and athletes?

Celebrity endorsements in advertising are a strange beast. They’ve been around forever—even Ronald Reagan pushed Chesterfield cigarettes as a Christmas gift when his acting notoriety carried a little clout.

You gotta wonder about the origins of these campaigns and sponsorship deals. I don’t know if a creative team working on Chevy said, “You know, this is a good price/feature comparison campaign, but what it really needs is Howie Long.” Or if a team working on pharma ads said, “Let’s see if Sally Field is available to talk about postmenopausal osteoporosis. After all, life is like a box of chocolates, but at least there’s Boniva to wash it down with.”

Some concepts work well for a particular celebrity’s personality—say, William Shatner’s ads for Priceline. I’m not sure what came first, his agreement to endorse the company, or a concept that needed a personality like his, but the quirks work.

On some level, it’s definitely an ego-stroking move on the part of the marketer. Who wouldn’t want to sign up a celebrity to make a few pop-in personal appearances at company events along with the ads?

I’ve had a few experiences with celebrities in my campaigns—one using a country singer, one using a NASCAR driver, a couple of others that never materialized. These were mandated by the client, so I had to make the ideas fit as appropriately as possible.

There’s usually a limiting factor that makes working with famous people a pain: What if the celebrity is an athlete who can’t act? What if they’re only available for 2 hours on shoot day? What if they don’t want to say the one great punch line in the commercial? What if they just act like a general asshole all the time? When your marketing message is so directly tied to the appeal (and the limitations) of a spokesperson, you’ve hitched yourself to a runaway train, no matter who it is.

Brands might want to adopt personas or be perceived as having a persona, but brands aren’t people. So why do brands continue to seek to identify themselves with a person? Are brands who need the crutch of a celebrity endorsement simply not strong enough to stand on their own?

The concept of celebrity endorsements doesn’t reflect the type of thinking that’s common among marketing folks these days — the thinking that suggests consumers are savvier than ever, more willing to engage with brands, and less willing to simply accept a one-way appeal from a marketer.

You might think that in this day and age, consumers are less willing to care or believe a message when a celebrity endorses a product. But it’s quite the opposite — and it’s more pervasive than ever. We are fascinated with celebrities and athletes and there’s the hope that if we do what they do, or use the products they use, we might be a little more like them. As a society, we gravitate towards celebrity. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon: many American movie stars pitch products overseas that they would never endorse here.

I’m not sure I’d advocate for any brand to tie themselves into a celebrity so tightly. Take Hertz, for example. OJ Simpson was the face of that company for years. Then when he stopped running through airports and ran into trouble, they cut him loose fast. They’re still the #1 car rental company, but I can’t remember much of their post-OJ marketing efforts.

Still, it’s a chance many marketers are willing to take. And Tiger Woods will survive, as will the companies that stick by him. But perhaps if more brands and companies invested in their own people and ideas, rather than throwing money at famous people, they’d have a better chance of staying atop the leaderboard in their categories.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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