The Game Of The Name

JAMES Bond is staring out at me from the page of a glossy magazine, promising style and refinement. In an elegant tuxedo, his wrist sports the latest Omega timepiece, only slightly concealed by a cuff-linked shirtsleeve.

The image has been immaculately crafted and the message registers instantaneously: “With the right accoutrements, a life of adventure and sophistication can be yours.”

Except, on second glance, I realise I’m not looking at James Bond at all, but the actor, Daniel Craig, who played his latest incarnation.

On further reflection, it occurs to me that the celebrity we know as Daniel Craig is no more familiar to me than the fictitious character of James Bond created by Ian Fleming over 50 years ago. The imaginary layers seem to be piling on top of each other. The fact that Omega produces a limited series 007 watch only adds another coat to the illusion.

When it finally comes to parting with my hard-earned money, can I really take the word of such a manufactured creation?

Nike spends around US$1 billion a year in endorsements (US$8 billion since 2002) in exchange for endorsements by celebrity athletes and teams as part of the company’s  advertising budget.

Money For Playing

According to Forbes, the top 100 athletes raked in just shy of US$1 billion in 2016. A number that continues to rise year on year. Swiss tennis star Roger Federer topped that list with US$60 million, a number likely to rise after his latest Grand Slam victory in Australia.

The top three on the list includes Cleveland Cavaliers NBA star, LeBron James ($54 million) who was part of the team that won the 2016 championship and who has signed a US$1 billion lifetime endorsement deal with Nike, and golfer Phil Mickelson (US$50 million) who overtook Tiger Woods in earnings last year.

This year’s US Presidential race turned out to be an endorsement fest with almost 200 A-listers like Katy Perry and George Clooney throwing their support behind their preferred candidate. Most of them supported Hilary Clinton, deflating the stars’ egos as harbingers of winners after Donald Trump surprisingly found his way into The White House.

With the television broadcast reaching hundreds of millions of people at the same time, there is no doubt that the celebrity adverts are there to influence us in some way. What’s more, if you consider that the average American is advertised to some 1,500 times a day, it would be easy to make a case for calling celebrity advertising attempted brainwashing. After all it was the infamous Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels who said, “a message repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Taking Off With Cash

In 2010, Turkish Airlines spent a fortune sponsoring Manchester United, replacing Air Asia as the team’s official carrier. The multi-million pound deal boosted the club’s sponsorship income by 48% over the past year including the £80 million shirt deal with American financial giant Aon Corp. This was announced at a time when the club’s books showed that its debts had risen to £716 million. Turkish Airlines also sponsored FC Barcelona, LA Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and top world tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Few of us are immune to the pleasant associations we automatically make between the famous people we admire and the friendly consumer suggestions they seem happy to share with us. A study conducted by Mirre Stallen of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, employed brain-scan technology in an effort to pin down the physiological effects these associations have in our brain. As part of our shared cultural experience, we all store pleasurable memories of well-known personalities in our cerebral cortex.

Stallen’s research found that those positive impressions could be transferred from the celebrity to a product, thereby increasing its desirability and the likelihood that we might want to purchase it.

The mere recognition of a celebrity’s face, the study found, was enough to trigger those pleasant associations in a person’s mind.

Furthermore, the endorsements aid brand recall, help build a positive attitude towards the brand and create a distinct personality for the brand.

Have fame, will sell

The use of famous personalities to advertise products is of course nothing new. A poster from the late 19th century shows no less a personage than Pope Leo XIII endorsing Vin Mariani, a wine which contained significant amounts of cocaine (both Queen Victoria and Thomas Edison were also outspoken fans of the wine and its ‘alertness-inducing’ effects).

At its simplest level, this phenomenon doesn’t appear too difficult to understand. To some degree, the great majority of us share a fascination with celebrities. Whether it is rooted in a respect for expertise and the high attainment of skills, as in the case of celebrated athletes like Rafael Nadal, or just a certain likeability connected to a celebrity’s public persona (think Will Smith or Drew Barrymore), we all feel a connection on some level to those chosen few that our culture elects to place upon a pedestal.

This effect has only been amplified by technology. For Generations X and Y that have grown up with online communities and social media, the role of celebrities seems to be no less important in these virtual spheres. In fact, research conducted by The Nielsen Company in the US has concluded that those who respond to celebrity endorsers on social media are themselves far more likely to follow and respond to brands on social media.

In combination with the right celebrity endorsement, the research has found that social network users show a pronounced sense of brand loyalty and are much more likely to follow celebrity campaigns more recurrently. This, together with the word-of-mouth nature of social network recommendations, may prove to be the new frontier for those trading in celebrity-driven endorsements.

And yet consumer behaviour and consumption related decisions are a complex mix of external and internal factors such as culture, income, perception, attitudes, learning, social pressures and personality. What’s more, no empirical support has been found for the view that people fall into such clear personality groups that we can confidently predict every sphere of consumer activity. But it is the effect of “personality” that drives marketers to try and explain and predict consumer behaviour and in turn develop specific promotional campaigns.

However, in the absence of any real evidence or understanding as to which approach works best, bombarding consumers with advertisements and getting celebrities to endorse products seem to be the prevailing tactics.

And while recommendations are significant when it comes to most peoples’ purchasing decisions, too often a celebrity endorsement is simply lazy advertising for a creative team that cannot come up with a great idea to promote the product.

To Market, To Market, To Get A Fat Cheque

Japan has its own spin on the use of celebrities to advertise everything from local beer to luxury apartments as was brilliantly portrayed by Bill Murray’s melancholy character in the film Lost In Translation.

In a society that takes glee in the art of demoralisation, Academy-award nominees and winners are often employed to barter a good deal of their dignity for substantial pay cheques. Thus, in Japan, you’ll find California’s former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger peddling energy drink Alinamin V and Harrison Ford endorsing Kirin Lager Beer. Furthermore, Nicolas Cage may have blemished his reputation as a serious and edgy actor irreparably by consenting to appear in a series of promotions for Sankyo, a pachinko coin-operated gaming machine manufacturer. Playing someone who is addicted to playing pachinko, Cage was no doubt confident that these somewhat embarrassing commercials would never be seen outside of Japan. Of course, the Internet has changed all this, and these and many other mortifying Japanese celebrity endorsements can be readily found by anyone visiting YouTube.

In Hollywood-obsessed Western culture, however, where film actors are the embodiment of everything that most can only aspire to, the word of celebrities is taken very seriously indeed. It’s no surprise then that we would be subconsciously predisposed to trust their judgement and listen to what they have to say when they choose to get behind a certain product or brand.

Interestingly, given the massive expenditure that the largest firms are willing to shell out for celebrity endorsements (roughly one in five advertisements comes with a celebrity endorsement) the benefits and returns on investment are not at all clear. The scant research available on the profitability factor of celebrity endorsements has focused on the immediate effect that they have on a company’s stock prices. Perhaps surprisingly, these studies have recorded a modest spike in stock prices (with some firms registering no increase at all) immediately following the announcement of a high-profile endorsement. This appears to indicate that the market’s perception that celebrity endorsements work is actually more important than anything that can be reliably demonstrated in bottom-line results.

Ace Metrix, considered in the US to be the leading authority in TV advertising effectiveness, recently released a study of over 2,600 advertisements that revealed that celebrity endorsements were not necessarily the advertising cash cow that many assumed them to be.

World-famous cyclist Lance Armstrong, the study showed, headed a disappointing campaign for US electronics chain Radio Shack (minus 28% impact), while Donald Trump’s appearances for Macy’s department stores generated a minus 24% return on their substantial investment in this renowned mogul.

Trusting at face value

With such less than compelling evidence, why is it considered an irrefutable truth in advertising circles that choosing the right celebrity for your product will invariably equate to increased profits? The answer may lie in the ability of the perception to become reality.

In the same way that the market’s fondness for celebrity endorsements will usually lead to short-term gains for a company’s share price, we all tend to believe that the word of our culture’s best and brightest is worth heeding. Ultimately, this is tied in with our own personal notions of whom we can trust and whom we should listen to.

When it comes to handing over our trust, and by implication, our cash, media analysts have noted that the personalities who hold the greatest sway over us are those who have spent the longest time cultivating a likeable and trustworthy persona.

Celebrities who rate highest in this category include Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Tom Hanks.

The friendly, good-humoured and reliable personalities they represent to us are a fiction we appear all too ready to accept. And therein lies the lure of the illusion. To analyse it too deeply is to risk making the magic disappear. Perhaps the greater mystery is why we are so willing to hand over our admiration and respect to complete strangers in the first place.

Larger Than Religion

Way back in 1966, John Lennon infuriated many by suggesting that the Beatles had become more popular to the youth of America than Jesus Christ. He could never have anticipated the maelstrom of controversy that would meet his remarks, but he had undoubtedly hit upon a growing truth: celebrity adoration was replacing the role once occupied by religion. In our current culture of media proliferation and 10-second news bites, this seems all the more true.

As social animals, anthropologists would point out that we are hard-wired to assign the role of pack leader to a select few and seem most content when playing ‘follow the leader’. However, in our increasingly secular societies, where the values engendered by the cult of the individual place us at odds with the less tangible concepts of spirituality and community, it seems somehow fitting that we choose to elevate the achievements of the few at the expense of the many. The present cultural climate, which regard to  the rich and famous as a type of modern-day royalty, exists in a constant state of obsession about the most trivial details of their everyday lives.

So prevalent is this new form of fascination with the lives of the rich and powerful that researchers have even coined a new term for society’s ongoing preoccupation with these select few: Celebrity Worship Syndrome.

In a recent study, psychologists Houran and McCutcheon claimed that as many as a third of us were subject to this powerful form of celebrity fixation. While keeping up-to-date with your favourite celebrity’s adventures is for most people a harmless pastime, there are those who increasingly find the line between celebrity worship and reality becoming blurred. At the extreme end of the spectrum, this can manifest in antisocial and dangerous behaviour. This sheds light on what psychologists term para-social relationships, or one-sided relationships, where one person knows a great deal about someone, but the other party knows little or nothing about the other.

A growing by-product of our media-saturated culture, para-social relationships have become the norm for many people whose only experience of the world is mediated through the screen of their television or computer, seemingly at the expense of more complex, interpersonal relationships.

Those most susceptible to the unhealthier aspects of celebrity worship, says Houran, are people in a transitional stage of their lives, such as teenagers whose value systems are still being formulated or those experiencing some form of crisis.

In the latter category, the relief afforded by immersing oneself in the exploits of someone else’s life can prove an irresistible form of escapism.

Ego Boosting

There are also those who claim that an ongoing fascination with celebrities can bolster one’s self esteem. In a study involving 348 college students, psychologist Shira Gabriel, was able to observe that respondents experienced a sense of pleasure and affirmation when writing about their favourite personalities. As long as levels of admiration did not reach the point of breaking away from reality, Gabriel suggests that identification with the extremely successful was a way of furthering one’s own dreams and moving closer to one’s goals. But while the desire to identify with one’s personal heroes is a highly entrenched human behaviour, there is not one person that I know of who feels good when comparing themselves to so-called successful celebrities.

Which young girl, comparing her body to Elle McPherson’s, comes away with her self-image bolstered? Instead, it would seem that protection from feelings of inadequacies rests in cultivating one’s own sense of self-worth and to ignore, as much as possible, the entreaties of the celebrities. Yet we continue to hold celebrities in such high esteem.

Perhaps this is because the common yardstick by which we hand over our admiration seems to be the measure of success.

The more success the celebrity has achieved in their given field, the more status is afforded to them. A Grand Slam win for Roger Federer will not only see his athletic standing rise, but research has shown that sales for products he is endorsing can be expected to increase by around 4%. In our highly aspirational culture, which values success above almost all else, a celebrity’s worth, in terms of general popularity as well as commercial endorsement viability, may be intrinsically tied to their latest triumphs – or conversely, their fall from grace.

From Idol To Fading Hero

Most recently, Tiger Woods’ spectacular drop in popularity seems to be a case in point. Achieving the inglorious distinction of worst celebrity endorsement of 2010, Woods’ association with Nike was said to have negatively impacted the value of the campaign by 30%. After ending his marriage with Elin Nordegren amid revelations of extramarital affairs, Woods’ reputation seems to have become tarnished beyond repair. In the same way that a well-chosen celebrity endorsement can be a boon for a company’s positive exposure, an ill-conceived choice can easily prove disastrous. Identification, it seems, is a double-edged sword. So while an athlete, who is admired, like David Beckham, has become something of a one-man endorsement machine, Woods’ meteoric fall from grace teaches us that the dividing line between idol to millions and fading hero can be perilously fine indeed.

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Whether or not these idols can regain the adulation and respect of their fans is difficult to gauge. There’s Charlie Sheen, who shrewdly exploited his increasingly unhinged behaviour through the use of social networking technology to generate revenue from a variety of different streams.

On occasion, fame can seemingly be translated into a force for positive change. Speaking on the eve of South Sudan’s referendum for independence, George Clooney used his prominent status as an A-list Hollywood star to raise awareness of the plight of this fledgling African nation. Tellingly, he was quoted as saying, “We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get.”

However, seeing Clooney appear in an ad for Nestlé’s Nespresso machines threatens to undermine the actor’s intended message in his support of South Sudan. Nestlé remains the subject of an international boycott over its baby milk products that are said to have had major negative health repercussions in Africa and many other economically less developed countries. The dissonance inherent in Clooney attaching his celebrity to a political cause, while at the same time endorsing the products of a corporation with a dubious history in the very same region, only serves to highlight the contradictions that are part and parcel of the highly orchestrated and manipulative tactics used by advertisers to get consumers to spend their money on the products they represent.

Choosing product over persona

Whether it’s the vicarious thrill of following the kind of high life few of us can hope to attain, or simply an interest in a world entirely unlike our own, our fascination with celebrities is not likely to end any time soon. Those who are in the business of selling us goods and services understand the convoluted relationship we have with our celebrities and are adept at exploiting this fascination of ours. After all, that’s their job. But fame is not something that can exist in isolation. Those lucky enough to breathe the rarefied air of fame and public adoration know that their privileged status hinges largely on our continued attention and support. And those unfortunate enough to fall the great distance from grace know also how fickle the public can be.

So while there is a discernible tendency in our society to accord authority and status to a very select few, what seems to go largely unnoticed is how that power is used. In the final analysis, who stands to gain? The celebrities clearly. The pay cheques are indecently huge.

The companies who employ them? Often. Although the figures are not conclusive, the perceived advertising wisdom remains that celebrities are an irresistible force in parting us from our money.

If the power to make or break our idols is essentially in our own hands, we should be more willing to use that power and examine our complicated relationship to our celebrities, rather than just swallowing the hype. A failure to do so may be exactly what the advertising industry is counting on. After all while Nike spends millions on celebrities, a brand like New Balance invests zero dollars on athlete endorsements and still ranks in the top five companies selling athletic shoes.

Clearly some companies have decided to steer clear of the practice of “cash for comment.” One need only think of Neil Young who, in a career spanning several decades, has steadfastly avoided lending his name to any brand or product. With typical acerbic simplicity, Young chants, “Ain’t singing for Pepsi. Ain’t singing for Coke. I don’t sing for nobody. It makes me look like a joke!”

By Dom Meli with research by Raf Rouco

This article was first published in STORM in 2011.

Main Image: Hayk_Shalunts /