Celebrity endorsement, once more softly

Ellen_for_am_ex An article in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times points out that celebrity endorsement continues to matter to marketing.  Indeed, the data say the celebrities showed up in 14% of ads last year. 

And they are everywhere.  The article notes the recent work for Totes by Rihanna, by Nicole Kidman for Chanel No. 5, by Eva Longoria for L’Oreal Paris hair color, by Jessica Simpson for Proactive, Jamie Lee Curtis for Dannon Activia yogurt, and Ellen DeGeneres for American Express

But the article reports a muddle in the model.

One Davie Brown category in which most celebrities appear vulnerable is trust. Celebrities are recognizable and appealing, but are often viewed with skepticism. “Trust always seems to be the lowest score among celebrities,” observes Matt Fleming, a Davie Brown account director who helps brands evaluate celebrity talent.

This is a puzzle.  If consumers buy products because celebrities are endorsing them, doesn’t this imply that they must trust the good opinion of the celebrity.  But if they don’t trust them, um, why do they buy the product so endorsed?

I believe that this puzzle tells us something useful  It says that we are wrong to think about celebrity endorsement as endorsement.  The celebrity is not speaking on behalf of the product.  They are not declaring their approval.  This is why the consumer can find the celebrity untrustworthy and effective.  The model has a muddle because the model is wrong. 

So what is the celebrity doing here?  When Rihanna appears with Totes, when Ellen DeGeneres speaks for American Express, what is happening?  I believe that what the celebrity does is lend their meanings to the brand.  Some part of Rihanna’s glamor is made resident in Totes.  Some part of Ellen’s humor is made resident in American Express. 

Celebrity endorsement is a process of building band meanings out of celebrities.  If we think of the celebrity as a brand (and all celebrities do), then the celebrity endorsement is the transfer of meanings from one brand (Ellen) to another (Amex).  This is simple meaning transfer.  For a more detailed treatment of the argument, see my article on this topic (as below).

This is not an extraordinary complicated notion.  It was the way Aristotle described metaphor several thousand years ago.  But it has a way of escaping the popular and the academic press.  The NYT article parades our many misconception.  But the facts are clear. 

Celebrities matter to brands because they supply them with meanings, incredibly fresh, powerful and nuanced meanings.  Many planners, creatives and agencies get this.  Many brand managers do.  When do the journalists and the academics catch up?


Creswell, Julie.  2008.  Nothing Sells Like Celebrity.  New York Times.  June 22, 2008.  here

McCracken, Grant. 2005.  Who is the celebrity endorser?  In Culture and Consumption II: Marketings, meanings and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  Purchase from Amazon.com here.


Ryan Holiday for bringing this article to my attention.  See Ryan’s blog here

11 thoughts on “Celebrity endorsement, once more softly

  1. Ross Popoff-Walker

    The idea of a brand spokesperson is so dated, it makes me think of alternatives…
    What if brands themselves were to become the celebrity?
    Or if brands let their most enthusiastic customers promote, rather than celebrities (maybe that’s just a testimonial)?

  2. srp

    There’s also the “burning money” signaling story. A firm should only expend large resources to induce users to try a product if it believes that after trying it once, they will purchase repeatedly (and/or give good word-of-mouth). A firm should only believe that users will behave this way after an initial trial if it believes that its product is genuinely high quality. Hence, any firm that expends large resources to attract users’ attention believes that its product is genuinely high quality, while firms that do not believe this would not find it rational to expend those resources.

    Celebrity endorsements, under this model, are just costly signals used to separate quality products from schlock when quality is hard for users to observe prior to purchase. The fact that it costs a lot to hire a celebrity is well known to the public, which makes the signal credible. There may be additional reasons for burning money on celebrities rather than just setting pyramids of cash aflame (although, come to think of it, nobody would believe a video of that), but this simple idea deserves more consideration than it usually gets among marketing folks.

  3. jk

    marketing speak is the blown up and often ridiculous attempt to halfheartedly code and process the things an organization has no words for.
    it is a little bit as if steve jobs would have tried to explain to his geek engineers about design – and as this did not work in geek speak, he would have jumped to simple commanding bullshit phrases.
    instead he lets his geeks do their thing and he lets his designers do their thing and to pull the stuff together and then he decides without having to find many words other then having the results speak for themselves.
    the trouble with marketing starts when organizations start to find words for it.
    that is precisely why advertising has to be done by an outside creative entity fiercly protected by account executives and a scaringly high budget.
    creativity for companies works not because it is fully integrated into the corporation, but because it is kept out and protected from those that feel they have to talk about it.

    call it ‘celebrity endorsement’ – it does not matter. it touches neither the creatives nor the advertising adressees in this way.

    thanks grant for cleaning up.

  4. jkh

    and – if i may say so – also ‘planning’ is extremely overrated in the impact it has on organzational enlightenment.
    it often works as a means of agency self-briefing because the client organization cannot come up with the relevant data.

  5. Stephen Denny

    Grant: when we look at the psychological side of this argument, with a nod to Dr. Robert Cialdini’s research into the science of influence, we’d say that celebrity endorsements fall into the category of “liking” — they relate to the familiar and agreeable. We go along with people we know and like, and we know and like celebrities (that’s what makes them celebrities, after all).

    The flip side is that they have little to no “authority” — they aren’t credible, regardless of Carl Malden for American Express or Dr. Marcus Welby (MD) for Sanka. Authority is based on real credibility – which celebrities lack.

    They both work in different ways. And they aren’t dated techniques — as you still see them used, quite effectively!


  6. peter spear

    i’m with you on this grant. i agree with the ‘burning money’ post, that the ‘quality’ of the communication – as representative of the brand in our relationship with it – carries with it a vital form of personal and social meaning.

    i’m interested in the oddly transactional framework that accompanies the ‘endorsement’ way of thinking of this – as if this interaction between viewer/consumer and product/communication were on Tivo:
    ask if they know what they’re talking about.
    consider their level of knowledge on the topic at hand.
    compare with current agreed upon standards of excellence and knowledge in the field.
    evaluate real credibility
    consider considering purchase.
    confidently state immunity to mass media.
    buy product reluctantly
    use socially and smile while doing so.

    i would argue that endorsement is a dead word. credibility is personality. the blending of celebrity and brand and business is fascinating at this moment in time: lance armstrong, tiger woods, 50 Cent (real credibility?), Jackass, the entire Bravo Network . . . .

    without a doubt the most elegant use of personalities i’ve seen, however, has got to be the Nike NEXT LEVEL ads running during the European Championship:

  7. Jeff McNeill

    There is a simpler explanation. The celebrities make us pay attention. That is all. We don’t even have to like the celebrities.

    If we do like or admire them, then we can feel an affinity for the products, e.g., Tiger Woods and Nike.

    Brands can also become celebrities (e.g., Google, Apple), and thereby command attention on their own.

  8. Obs

    “What if brands themselves were to become the celebrity?”
    Then you would have ads where Mrs. Butterworth is hired to shill for car insurance.

  9. peter spear

    it struck me that this post and the commentary on it are a kind of meta-exercise in some complicated kinda denial.

    here we all are gathered at grant’s blog, with our own blogs in our pockets, associating with each other over ideas that we care passionately about (and most likely earn our livelihood trading in) debating whether or not there is any significance to celebrity endorsements.

    i’ll be the first to admit that reason number one i enjoy grant’s blog is that i hope that some of anthropological insight will rub off on me, that i will always be learning and thinking in new ways. and i know that, in conversation, i will want to drop a reference to him (both to give him credit and to assure people that i do read) in conversation with people in a way that will lend substance to an idea that, without that reference, could easily have been discarded as the babblings of a chowderhead.

    so i guess the question is – aren’t we all celebrities who are always endorsing?

  10. Charles Frith

    Great topic to uncover Grant. It’s a bit tricky getting onto your blocked site round the great firewall here in China but in case my comment doesn’t get through, here goes.

    I think the trust dimension is crucial in categories of advertising where the creative isn’t necessarily that strong.

    Just by appearing in broadcast media the implicit message is ‘we can afford to buy this space’ and thus are somewhat trustworthy.

    Secondly I don’t believe what people say unless I know the methodology for the research but if people express a scepticism for celebrity endorsement then maybe the issue is that the brands are also saying. Not only can we buy the media space, but we can buy the celebs to go with it. We must be trustworthy. Maybe the outtake is that people trust the brands more and the celebs a little less from this process.

    Just a thought because with respect to ‘media as trust’ I’ve been thinking about this for some years now. Your post takes my thinking in another direction.

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