Angelina Jolie: celebrity endorsement gone wrong?


Angelina Jolie is the new face for St. John Knits, a cause for surprise in some circles. St. John is famous for clothing the senior executive. Their suits are favored by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Was Angelina Jolie exactly the right choice?

Allen Adamson at Landor thinks so.

"Angelina is hot right now, she’s fashionable and she’s edgy. Maybe she’s not as nice as some of her fans would like her to be. But in branding it’s better to have a bit of an edge, because you get more attention."

There is a systematic way to think about this. A celebrity endorsement is a little like a metaphor. Meanings from one term, the celebrity, are proposed for the other term, the brand. If the audience finds the comparison plausible, transfer takes place. The meaning of the brand is changed. For better or worse.

So what meanings does Angelina Jolie make available to St. John Knits? Normally, we would answer this question carefully, thoughtfully, and with the benefit of consumer and cultural research. But this is the seat-of-the-pants world of blog construction where things happen with the speed of day-time television and shameless ad-hocery of the soap opera producer. ("I know! Let’s just say he didn’t die after all!")

Hastily, then, we could say that Angelina Jolie stands for a couple of things. First, she appears to be an old fashioned Hollywood star. People do keep using this phrase, applying it to actresses as diverse as Annette Benning and Catherine Zeta Jones. Jolie’s version of the old time Hollywood star makes her a return of the voluptuous. She is an act of physical, social, and emotional extravagance. She is out of scale. Lips, hips, breasts, eyes, hair. Sometimes the actress dwarves even her roles (even when these are Lara Croft). In the 60s, we seemed to be asking that our stars return to human scale. Then we snapped out of it.

Second, the out-scaled quality of this star carries off the screen into her private life. Jolie lives large. She experiments with her sexuality. She fights with family members as if reenacting Greek myths. She plays the guardian angel to the children of the third world. She steals husbands even when they are an American sweetheart. She wrecks even the special families thta everyone wishes well. She is indifferent to bourgeois rules and regs, and happy to take her leave of them.

Third, there is to her character, on screen and off, a certain knowingness. There is none of the simple generosity that Marilyn Monroe manufactured. There is none of the matter of factness with which Pamela Anderson says she is just tagging along with her breasts. Jolie is fully observant, well informed, pretty intelligent and unforgiving witness to it all. She may mean it. She may not. She’s got that 1990s irony thing down cold. Madonna with a heart. Courtney Love with a brain. There’s someone home.

On balance, and until someone pays me a breathtaking sum of money, this can only be surmise, Angelina Jolie does not look to me the perfect choice for St. John Knits. Sure, they are trying to recruit a new consumer, someone a little younger than their present loyalist who’s about 55. But, according to Agin’s story in the WSJ, St. John wants to keep the existing constituency, women of wealth and power. For this group, I’m guessing, Jolie is a bull in the china shop. A lovely bull, but a dangerous one.

Now, in marketing, as in all else, the devil is in the details. The art of marketing is to create campaigns that help select (and exclude) certain of Jolie’s meanings so that only some of them transfer. There is "wiggle room" here. But it feels like the heart, the centre of these bundle of meanings is well off the mark.


Agins, Teri. 2005. A Fashion Conservative Teams Up With Tattooed Starlet. Wall Street Journal. September 15, 2005.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Who is the celebrity endorser? Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meaning, and brand management. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 97-115.

14 thoughts on “Angelina Jolie: celebrity endorsement gone wrong?

  1. greg claxton

    Is it worth asking the reverse: what does this endorsement mean for Jolie? I mean, can we assume that she’s managing her image, and that this might signal some change in that? That might make the pairing more sensible.

    I notice on her imdb page that she produced a movie for the first time this year.

  2. Greg

    Greg, great question, is she hoping that a connection with this brand will bring her in from the cold (hot)? but listen forget star, this woman is light bearing, she dont need the brand, producing on the other hand, that’s interesting. Thanks, Grant

  3. Tom Guarriello


    Not being sure how many of your readers also read Women’s Wear Daily, I’m providing their story about the Jolie/St. John Knitwear announcement. The industry-insider perspective on these things is always interesting. Enjoy.

    St. John’s New Angel?
    By Rose Apodaca

    Angelina’s St. John Bonanza
    LOS ANGELES — First Kelly, then Gisele and now Angelina.

    Following the surprising replacement this fall of longtime campaign model and founding daughter Kelly Gray with supermodel Gisele Bündchen, the St. John knitwear brand is said to have signed on statuesque superstar, U.N. ambassador and tabloid favorite Angelina Jolie for its 2006 run.

    The move — which the Irvine, Calif.-based fashion house is expected to announce in a press conference this week — is only the latest in chief executive officer Richard Cohen’s dramatic remake of St. John.

    There has been no shortage of surprises since the British-born Cohen assumed the reins from the founding family of the 40-year-old brand a year ago.

    Cohen’s leadership was underscored following months of executive announcements when in late July, company co-founder and designer Marie Gray and her daughter, Kelly, the creative director and perennial ad star, submitted their resignations. Although expected — Marie Gray’s contract was up in December — the timing came as a surprise to many longtime employees within the company.

    A new head designer has yet to be announced. But industry veteran Tim Gardner, who’s worked as creative director for Calvin Klein and, most recently, PHI, has been consulting with the in-house design team since at least the start of the year.

    The Grays’ departure came on the heels of the announcement that the Brazilian glamazon Bündchen — a 360-degree departure from Kelly Gray, who posed for the signature ads for more than two decades — would personify the company’s new image.

    In a prescient sign, the Mario Testino-shot fall campaign featured Bündchen as a star “on set,” surrounded by several beefy extras in costume. It was a nod to the past campaign with Gray and her constant cadre of boy toys and now, it appears, the future.

    The din that the 30-year-old Jolie would be Bündchen’s successor, as WWD reported this summer, has been intensifying recently. But Cohen and St. John representatives declined to comment whether any A-list star would step into the role.

    The red carpet, of course, tops the list of any successful fashion brand marketing program. And despite efforts even before Cohen’s arrival, such a moment at an awards show or even lowly film premier long eluded St. John.

    Off the record, many Hollywood stylists insisted the house would need to shake off its musty image as the practical source for political power women and Ladies Who Lunch before they would consider showing the clothes to their celebrity clients.

    Given Jolie’s image, the choice will present St. John in a striking new light. Very few in the congested celebrity landscape can claim a glamour — and cool — quotient like Jolie’s.

    Attracting a wider and younger clientele base, and thereby upping its appeal and sales, has motivated the changes at St. John.

    Although it remains one of the best-selling brands at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, with a cult following for its crease-free knit suits and gowns, profits have tipped in recent years.

    While sales rose 7 percent to $395.6 million in fiscal 2004 from the previous year, profits dropped to $13.4 million, according to the company’s earnings report. That is 10 percent less than in 2003 and 44 percent lower than in 2000. The falling profits appear to be largely because of remodeling and expansion costs for St. John’s 31 signature retail doors worldwide, propelled partly by the slowing growth at department stores. A new look is set to bow in coming months at St. John stores.

  4. Virginia Postrel

    I’ve long used St. John’s to illustrate how brands can have meanings separate from the pure aesthetics of their goods. Notwithstanding Gloria Allred’s fondness for them, St. John’s clothes tell the world you’re a rich man’s wife (or ex-wife). Whatever other messages she sends, Angelina Jolie does not strike anyone as a woman who lives off a man.

  5. Grant

    Greg, sorry about the fragmented response. I think what I meant was:

    Greg, great question, is she hoping that a connection with this brand will bring her in from the cold (hot)? but listen forget star, this woman is light bearing, she doesn’t need the brand. Producing movies on the other hand, that’s interesting. This is something the executive can relate to. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, thanks for the glimpse a WW. The reference to boy toys suggests the brand was already moving away from polite convention, so perhaps AJ is less of a stretch. Maybe they already have permission. Without research, it’s hard to know. It sounds from the WSJ piece that they used focus groups! Focus groups, what were they thinking. Best, Grant

    Virginia, My sources (Pam) tell me that the St. John’s suit is well established in the executive wardrobe (along with the Chanel suit among other things). And these executives have already established their independence, haven’t they?
    Thanks, Grant

    JohnO, thanks, Grant

    CarolGee, thanks very much for this glimpse of her motives. She sounds so circumspect. Perhaps the star is repositioning, too! Thanks, Grant

  6. Tom Guarriello

    Wait, does the Mercury News article linked above really say: “St. John has always been worn by strong and independent women who truly appreciate John offers. I am happy to be a part of that tradition and more importantly part of taking that tradition into the future.”

    “Truly appreciate John offers?” A joke, or a typo, right?

  7. Jeanette

    This is a win-win situation: Jolie still has control of her image, money, a stake in the company and the establishment of a corporate charity in her works. For St. John this is a bonanza for them, the avg. client age is 55 years and that wont continue to sustain profits for long. They need to entice a younger market, who thinks their clothes are ugly and matronly and let me tell you Angelina Jolie is none of these things. Angelina Jolie has a huge influence with her peers and is highly respected. Don’t confuse tabloid writings with her popularity and sell quotient. She is a fashion icon, if reluctantly.

  8. nelly

    people wish they looked like her. They are just jealous. She is direct and she knows what she likes. She will put alot of people to shame with her stunning looks and just being herself, which alot of people don’t know how to be. They are afraid of what others things of them.

  9. Kitmeout

    So Angelina Jolie is taking over from her reputed husband-to-be, Brad Pitt, and will appear in a new Edwin Jeans advert. According to America’s Us Weekly magazine Angelina Jolie was spotted filming the Edwin Jeans advert in California whilst her adopted son played with Brad Pitt nearby.

    Brad Pitt was the face of Edwin jeans in Asia from 1996 to 1999 and helped the brand establish itself as a major denim force but he always refused to appear in American adverts for the aspiring premium denim brand. Perhaps Angelina is less coy about playing to her home audience? If the story’s true it’ll be a major coup for Edwin Jeans who are determine to snatch a sizeable slice of the American denim market.

    Angelina Jolie, or Laura Croft, gracing the screens in a pair of tight Edwin’s is bound to attract much excitement and, indeed, sales. Smart move Edwin!

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