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Celebrity in Advertising

Updated on April 26, 2011


During the latter part of the twentieth century there has been a major shift in focus towards celebrity culture by the media which reflects the increased interest in celebrity by society as a whole. This interest in celebrity has infiltrated all media industries and the trade of these symbolic commodities has become prolific in the advertising industry, most extensively through celebrity endorsement. The constructed image of celebrity is used to sell products to consumers and this essay aims to explain how and why this works and also how it is important to choose the right kind of celebrity to avoid negative connotations with a product. Examples of sporting celebrity endorsements will be used to give practical examples of content and theories.

Bainbridge (2008: 196-202) explains that that increased interest in celebrity and indeed celebrity culture is a relatively new phenomenon. The first celebrities were the stars of Hollywood films but the term has come to mean anyone who circulates heavily in the media. Turner (2004) also emphasises that an important aspect of celebrity is media and public interest in their private lives. This is so as the public only ever sees a constructed representation of celebrity through the media which fuels public interest in private details (Rojek 2001). Though celebrity culture may be a product of modern society, the first recorded celebrity endorsement appeared in 1893 with British actress Lillie Langtry appearing on a packet of Pear’s Soap (Bergstrom and Rikard 2004: 8). It seems that even then the power of the ‘parasocial’ relationship in advertising was already being exploited. This relationship, described by Choi and Rifon (2007: 308) as ‘intimacy at a distance’, is the attachment ordinary people feel to celebrities through their media representation. This means simply that when a celebrity endorses a product, this established emotional connection causes the consumer to ‘consciously and unconsciously associate the product with the celebrity,’ (Hartley 2003: 12).

Celebrities can be thought of as a commodity in the way that their image is changed or exploited to make money (Bainbridge 2008: 197). The amount of success a celebrity has with forming strong parasocial relationships reflects in the celebrity’s strength as a commodity. Branston and Stafford (2006: 320) explain that the term ‘bankable’ in regard to a celebrity, is shorthand for that celebrity’s success. Turner (2004: 34) goes as far as to say that celebrities are only developed to make money and become a financial asset or the property of those who gain from their commercialisation. For a celebrity to become ‘bankable’ it is important for their image to be widespread and be seen as appealing or ideal to audiences (Choi and Rifon 2007: 318). So for a celebrity to succeed in being profitable their parasocial relationship with the public must be strong, so as consumers don’t question changes to the celebrity’s image. To form this bond a manufactured image is constructed by the celebrity and those seeking to gain from the success of their commodity. This image must appeal to potential consumers and be widespread amongst the media.

The rise of celebrity endorsement has helped celebrities both expand their image and make money. Once a celebrity is ‘bankable’, they can be used to sell products to consumers. Choi and Rifon (2007: 306) simply suggest celebrities add credibility to advertisements as they are well known and can therefore be a trusted source. They also suggest that consumers aim to emulate the celebrity by buying the endorsed product. In a study by Mastrangelo (2006) she cites Erdogan and Kitchen (1998) as explaining further why celebrity endorsements work. The ‘dynamic’ qualities of the celebrity can be transferred to the product subconsciously by the consumer, and ads involving celebrities have been found to attract and maintain attention greater than other ads and possess a higher recall status. Erdogan and Kitchen also suggest that a commodity has been placed on a celebrity’s private life which explains why endorsements in which the celebrity reveals something personal about themselves to sell the product are highly effective as the celebrity becomes easier to identify with. Mastrangelo (2006: 25-26) shows that there are dangers in using celebrity endorsement. These dangers include mismatch between product and endorser, where the consumer can see no credible link between the two. Also included are overexposure of the celebrity which can lead to backlash and scorn, and celebrity misbehaviour which reflects badly on and can undermine a product.

To avoid the dramas involved with celebrity endorsement techniques it is essential the right person is chosen to endorse a product. Bergstom and Skarfstad (2004: 18-19) cite Shimp (2003) in explaining two separate strategies in picking the right celebrity. The first, the ‘TEARS’ model, stands for Trustworthiness, Expertise, Attractiveness, Respect and Similarity. These are the qualities that the prospective endorser must have, it is important to note that similarity is considered important as a consumer is more likely to relate to someone of the same age, sex or race. The other strategy is the ‘No Tears’ model, which includes many more specifically termed criteria and is probably a more workable approach. It includes a ‘getting into trouble factor’ as one of its criteria as well as cost consideration.

It is interesting to note that it is only recently that sports stars have become regulars as celebrity endorsers. Although sporting stars possess many ideal qualities such as attractiveness and credibility (Berstom and Skarfstad 2004: 10), it was only with the advent of television broadcast sport that they became known as celebrities (Turner 2004: 39). This is possibly because sportspersons were only regarded as ‘disposable celebrities’ (Bainbridge 2008: 210), and endorsements work best as long running associations (Berstom and Skarfstad 2004: 10). It is now possible for two thirds of a sporting celebrity’s salary to come from product endorsement (Rein et al., 1997).

American basketballer, Michael Jordan has largely disproved the disposable celebrity argument against sporting stars. Through integration into media industries including advertising, Jordan was able to become a ‘brand’ himself (Turner 2004: 39). His long running association with Nike has meant that both his ‘brand’ and Nike have become intertwined in many people’s mind and his sporting prowess has transferred positive attributes to Nike’s products (Bergstrom and Skarfstad 2004: 9). Jordan was also able to expand his brand to other endorsements successfully, his ‘Be like Mike’ promotion for Gatorade helped produce annual revenue profit margins of around $400 million.

Another sporting celebrity who has claimed ‘brand’ status is Tiger Woods. Unlike Ricky Ponting, whose early career bad behaviour did not affect perspective endorsement deals (Turner et al., 2000: 46); Wood’s publicised affairs affected his status as an ideal spokesperson. His funds from endorsements dropped down $22 million dollars in 2010 as he lost three major sponsorship deals (Wei 2010). Interestingly he did not lose his $105 million deal with Nike (Forbes 2004), as they may have felt his parasocial relationship with consumers is based on his golfing prowess rather than off field behaviour.

The power of celebrity as a symbolic commodity in the advertising industry is reflected in the amount of money that companies pay sports stars and other celebrities to endorse their products. The increased interest in celebrity and calculated image representation has made parasocial relationships increasingly stronger in the modern day. This and the precedent set by people such as Michael Jordon has given companies confidence to invest heavily in celebrities. The use of proven strategies to pick an appropriate endorser ensures that the use of celebrity as commodity in advertising will continue to make profits.

Reference List:

Bainbridge, Jason 2008, ‘Celebrity’, in J. Bainbridge, N. Goc, L. Tynan, Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory & Practise, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp. 195-212.

Bergstrom, Christian and Skarfstad, Rikard 2004, ‘Celebrity Endorsement: Case Study of J. Lindberg’, International Business and Economics Program, no. 193, pp. 8-19.

Branston, Gill and Stafford, Roy 2006, The Media Student’s Book, 4th ed., Routledge, London.

Choi, Sejung Marina, and Rifon, Nora J. 2007, ‘Who Is the Celebrity in Advertising? Understanding Dimensions of Celebrity Images’ Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 40 , Issue 2, pp.305-318.

Gadomski, Brian 2003, Advertising with Celebrities: What’s Really Being Sold?, BGSU, viewed 1 Septmember 2010, <www.bgsu.edu/departments/tcom/faculty/ha/sp2003/gp4/gp4.pdf>

Mastrangelo, Annalisa 2006, Seeing Stars: The Relationship Between Celebrities and Advertising, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Turner, Graeme 2004, Understanding Celebrity, Sage Publications, London.

Turner, Graeme, Bonner, Frances, Marshal, Davied 2000, Fame Games: The Production of Celebrity in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

William Wei 2010, Tiger Woods Lost $22 Million in Endorsements in 2010, Business Insider, viewed 4 September 2010, <http://www.businessinsider.com/tiger-woods-lost-22-million-in-2010-endorsements-2010-7>.

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