The Role of Celebrity Endorsements in Public Relations Campaigns

Businesses and entrepreneurs who use celebrities to endorse there products are elevated into another category.   The celebrity pitch is a tried and tested advertising strategy that has stood the test of time.  The advantages are that celebrity adds personalities and characteristics to a brand that will raise awareness and product adoption.According to American Public Opinion Survey and Market Research, 72 % of customers who bought a product backed by a celebrity said that it was the famous face of the endorser who first grabbed their attention. If successful, the use of celebrity endorsers can contribute to adding significant value to a product.  Today, more than ever before, the public has a hunger for celebrity information. The cult of the celebrity is more powerful than at any time in history and the marketing potential of this is enormous, especially if you can connect a product and a celebrity to a specific demographic group.

Advocates of the use of celebrity endorsements to sell products will point to the frequently hailed increases in sales as a result of a celebrity’s appearance in promotional campaigns.   T-Mobile for instance claimed that the use of Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote their network in the United States increased sales by 25% – a massive margin.   However, there is no consensus that this strategy is successful.   Firstly, critics argue, using a celebrity face leaves you open to accusations of cheaply selling a product that does not sell itself and secondly, attaching your brand to an individual is a huge risk as any negative publicity regarding that individual will be immediately connected to your brand.  This can create a long-term stigma that is difficult to overcome.

Furthermore a celebrity should know about a product and preferably use it themselves so that they can endorse it beyond face value.   It helps if they believe in what they are selling.   Often they are contractually obliged to use the product which makes it especially damaging if they are caught using a rival brand.   For example, Britney Spears risked losing her $97 million endorsement deal with Pepsi when she was twice photographed drinking rival brand Coke.

Having said that the use of celebrity endorsers dangerously attaches the fate of your brand to the personal life of the endorser, there is a saying that all publicity is good publicity and in this age of massive celebrity interest this is perhaps truer than ever.   A perfect example of this scenario – no one in recent memory has turned a bad public reputation into a marketing bonanza as effectively as did Paris Hilton, and now she is spreading her backward PR success to her mobile network. The publicity that arose when Hilton had her mobile phone hacked into and her numbers stolen.   Rather than raise security scares that may harm sales, her network provider — T-Mobile — has subsequently been selling out of the Sidekick model of hand-set that Paris was revealed to use, “apparently, her unintentional endorsement of the unit is a more effective draw than the chilling realization that one’s personal information might be exposed on a mobile network”.   If ever the impact of a celebrity endorser was in question, this incident provides marketers with extremely persuasive evidence that this strategy is an extremely powerful one to follow.

A large problem with celebrity endorsers is that beyond their payment they usually have little incentive or interest in the success of their contribution to a promotional strategy.   Celebrity endorsers are attracted by the money and often the free publicity.   While a successful endorsement strategy can pay dividends (quite literally) for the celebrity, it is the amount of money that they receive that is most likely to interest them.   This is especially true of celebrities with multiple endorsement deals.   If they are receiving large amounts of money from a particular company the incentive to actively promote another company may be limited. Nike’s endorsement of Tiger Woods is an example of one brand dominating a celebrity.   His requirement to wear Nike clothing in all other endorsement campaigns somewhat undermines his other sponsors such as Buick, American Express of Tag Heuer watches.   Accenture recently produced a campaign of adverts at enormous cost in which Woods was photographed in various golf poses, the Nike logo on his cap was so prominent that the campaign served more to endorse Nike than it did Accenture.

The familiarity breeds friendship and trust.   Therefore the more we see celebrities the more we believe we can trust what they say and endorse – we’re designed to trust our friends.   This effect is known by Neuroscientists are the “mere exposure effect”.   The more we see the more we like. Merely attaching a famous face to a product is not a guarantee of success and herein lies the biggest danger of using celebrities to endorse brands.   The products characteristics and the personality of the celebrity must be precisely matched and more importantly must appeal strongly to the specific demographic the brand is targeted at.   This is a biggest cause of failure in celebrity endorsed advertising campaigns, especially, as stated before, because the initial payment is usually the principle concern of the celebrity rather than the outcome of the campaign.   The difference between the endorser and the company employing them is that the celebrity will see any publicity as a bonus, the company sees it as essential. To match a business with the right star a company must define the attributes that best suit their brands profile and target demographic. So, for example, Volvo could be associated with reliability or safety, while Porsche might be associated with speed and thrills.

The Nike partnership with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, and T-mobile with Catherine Zeta-Jones are examples of brands and celebrities in perfect harmony and achieving astonishing results in terms of sales, added value and popularity.   In such agreements, everybody benefits.   However, when sales do not increase or the brand is damaged arguably it is only the celebrity who benefits as they are either paid for it or, if doing it for a charity (e.g. Chris Martin from Coldplay),they get the moral status points.

In short, celebrity endorsements are high risk, and sometimes things go wrong. Misbehavior  is  one obvious risk but as the Paris Hilton example showed this is not always the biggest risk. More dangerous, however, is a basic failure to find complementary attributes between star and product. Chrysler paid $14 million to singer Celine Dion to front their 2003 advertising campaign, but consumers did not buy the intended match between Dion’s voice and image and Chrysler’s automotive sophistication. Sales suffered and the company ended up pulling the campaign. A potential failure was averted by appliance maker Salton after they had initially portrayed George Foreman as a boxer to sell their now famous George Foreman Grill. Initially sales lagged until the company focused on the attributes that matched with the lifestyle of those who would use the product: a barbecuing, funny dad to eight hungry kids. The value of this version of George Foreman that Salton paid the former boxer $138 million for long term rights to his name and likeness.   This is a rare story of such a successful campaign.   The reality is that celebrity campaigns are unoriginal, commonplace and usually costly.   There is always one winner though — the celebrity.

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