Category Archives: celebrity watch

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 here.


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

Kathy Griffin: can she do it?

Kathy Griffin is an anthropological puzzle.  She is featured in the present issue of Entertainment Weekly. 

What’s interesting about this coverage is that it tells us that Griffin’s adaptive strategy has costs.  She has been banned from most of the Talk shows and Award shows.  And this is important because it tells us that she is taking risks and that the risks sometimes go wrong.

When I wrote about her last, I couldn’t help wondering whether there wasn’t a contradiction here.  How D List could she be when Griffin has risen so high and won such fame?  Was this outsider thing really a pose?  And a disingenuous one at that.  Kathy Griffin, the insider who pretends to be an outsider. 

But it turns out the tattle-tale strategy (telling on the celebrities who are your friends) goes badly from time to time.  It’s not the case that everyone is in on the joke.  Some people are going to hold it against you and some, like Letterman and Gelman, do. (So says the EW article.)

And this gives us a test case.  It shows us what happens when someone defies the Sammy Maudlin club (see the SCTV skit that features a talk show in which everyone is way too paly).  It helps us find that "fine line" between the gossip and something so apparently scurrilous that there is punishment and the scurriler discovers she will never "trade banter on this sound stage again." 

Ok, it’s probably not a fine line.  It’s a broad one.  But it is still hard to know where it is, or what the costs of violation are.  Until someone dares break the rule, we can’t be sure it isn’t something that is in fact forgivable…and costless.  The trouble is the costs of exclusion are so high in Hollywood, there is a huge disincentive to take the Griffin risk.  Without a Griffin experiment, we can never really know.   

But now we do.  At Griffin’s cost.  And the new question is what exactly Griffin’s bad behavior is going to cost her.  Unless of course, the EW article is actually an effort to make us feel bad for her, which it does.  In this case, she wins when she wins and she wins when she loses.  (That is, she wins when she gets famous and she wins when she gets punished.)  But I don’t think that’s it. The EW article makes it seem like she has really been made to pay. 

We must hope that she still has options, that she can continue to get work.  And surely, in a plenitude, post-network world, that’s possible.  I mean, she has a cable show and that is her protection against banishment.  Plus, if she can get coverage of this kind from EW, then obscurity can’t be a problem.  She won’t ever be A list, but the alternative doesn’t not look very punishing, and, when all is said and done, it will be millions of dollars from the poor house. 

But there is till a real problem with this adaptive strategy.  Griffin can always find work, but if she is excluded from the corridors of celebrity, it will starve her act.  She may make celebrity and riches working her own cable universe.  But unless she shares a Green Room with a big star acting like an idiot, she has nothing to trade. 

Griffin says in the EW article that celebrities now get that her act is not dangerous, that it is another part of the celebrity game, indeed another opportunity for their aggrandizement.  And if she is right, here, and other celebrities become less sensitive to the Griffin treatment, then she can turn the spiggots back on.  She is back in the know.

But if Hollywood manages to cut her off, then she has a real problem.  The problem, and this is the problem for every adaptive strategy (and creature), is to find that sweet spot, the one between an act sufficiently rude and revelational to persuade fans that Kathy really is telling tales out of school AND an act that is sufficiently discrete to protect celebrity’s celebrity (and of course their self love). 

Can Kathy do it?


Fonseca, Nicholas.  2008.  The Most Polarizing Woman in Hollywood.  Entertainment Weekly.  June 13, 2008, pp. 34-38.

McCracken, Grant.  Kathy Griffin.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 7, 2007. here

Zerubavel, Eviatar.  1993.  The Fine Line.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Going Paula

Script_pad An episode of Hey, Paula feels like an episode of another kind. Delight gives way to crying which returns to delight.  Girl, call your anthropologist. 

Here’s what he’ll tell you. 

1) Our culture distinguishes between public and private. 

2) This helps us distinguish between "front stage" and a "back stage."

3) Everyone seeks to "manage impressions" on the "front stage."  When this is done well, our social capital increases, and other capitals accrue to us.

4) Everyone works to conceal the "back stage."  When this is done badly, our social capital diminishes and other bad things happen too.

5) The distinction between public and private, and the one between front stage and back stage, has been shifting in our culture in the last 100 years.  Once an iron clad distinction that ruled social life and personal experience, it is now blurred.  Victorians lived and died by this distinction.  It is now, as we might say, "in play."

6) All public figures (actors, politicians, business leaders, public figures) are now obliged to reveal more of the private self in the public persona.  It’s part of the new contract fashioned between leaders and the rest of us.  It’s almost as if we are saying to celebrities:

"if you want us to take you seriously, you have to show us more of who you are.  We need to know who we’re dealing with.  Personal revelation helps.  It’s what you owe us.  It’s part of our due diligence."

7) It is possible, then, to increase one’s social capital, celebrity and credibility by moving the boundary between public and private and revealing more of one’s private life. 

8) But the old rules still apply, and when some people reveal the private self the result is punishment and self-diminishment. 

9) Reality TV has a mixed record as an instrument of revelation.  Stars like Kathy Griffin has used to to good effect.  It has built her standing and celebrity.  But it has been less kind to other celebrities.  I think we are obliged to say that on balance Mr. T’s appearance on the reality program, I Pity the Fool, did more to confirm his obscurity than save him from it. Nick and Jessica returns a split verdict: Jessica, ok.  Nick, not so much. 

10) The question for Paula Abdul was whether reality TV would augment or diminish her standing. 

11) I think every student of popular culture was obliged to sound the horn of caution.  In point of fact, Paula Abdul had already participated in the new culture of "revealed privacy. " Several years of exposure and unrehearsed reaction on American Idol had given the American public a pretty good sense of the "real" Paula Abdul.  Evidently, this was a woman who lead with her emotions, cared about the little guy, came to the defense of the vulnerable, and otherwise qualified as the "people’s Paula." 

12) The question was simple: was there any more to be gained from still greater revelation?    And this question was haunted by the "diminishing returns" suspicion that there couldn’t be enough "revelation capital" left to justify the risk of overexposure. 

13) The empirical outcome is I think indisputable.  The danger of overexposure is clear and with each passing "episode" ever more costly.  When Paula melts down over a missing hair dresser, she puts in jeopardy her "people’s Paula" standing and risks looking like a Princess.

14) I think the larger conclusion is also clear.  It’s time for every public figure to put an anthropologist on retainer. 


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Kathy Griffin.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 07, 2007. here

Kathy Griffin

Kathygriffin Hello, New York, it’s me, what’s her face! 
(Kathy Griffin, standing in front of Carnegie Hall)

I saw the opening of Season 3 of Kathy Griffin’s Life on the D List this week.  Normally, I watch Griffin with discomfort.  Do celebrities deserve the abuse she dishes out?  (McCracken 2005, below)

But I think Poland changed me.  I’m feeling less sentimental, less charitable, less nice than I used to.  Crawling your way to stardom over the damaged careers of other stars, that now looks ok to me.  (Apparently, it takes Poland to make a Canadian feel more American.  Go figure.)

Is there a grammar to Kathy Griffin?  Can we identify the meaning mechanics that brought her, trembling with gratitude, when not spitting invective, to the brink of stardom? 

Well, we can try.  Here’s what I have so far.  Your comments, please. 

KG is a composite of these celebrity precedents:

1. Bette Midler and the "niche audience" strategy

Midler started her career working in gay clubs, and this helped launch a broader stardom.  KG is working this strategy.  She refers often to "her gays" and claims to "speak gay."

The caveat: the present gay community is different from the one Midler connected with.  I bet some gays resent a patronizing, "my gays" presumption of solidarity.  And I think it’s unwise to think that sexual orientation guarantees any other commonality.  But let’s say diffusion currents do still work to give some unity to gay diversity.  What happens if the resentment of one group diffuses into the larger community?   No doubt, Griffin expects to be well launched by this time.    But if she isn’t well launched, she may be, well, fucked.  (Forgive the language.  I’m speaking Griffin.) 

2. Roseann Barr, and the "talk about anything, and f*ck ’em if they can’t take a joke" approach

Barr was one of the first inventions of feminism, a loud mouthed b*tch who took no prisoners, spared no sensibility.  This came as a shock to the "white glove" feminists, who, unwittingly, sought the exportation of middle class values under the cover of a gender revolution.  And it came as a special disappointment to the intellectuals who insisted that popular culture, and certainly something as pandering as comedy, must necessarily be tame and conformist.  Barr was anything but. 

The wonder is that after so many transgressive comedy (Richard Pryor, Sam Kineson, etc.), there is any powder left in the armory.  The fact that her inquisition is directed against celebrities somehow makes it ok.  They have raised themselves on high, the notion goes, and God choose an Irish Catholic from Chicago to bring them low.   Joan of Art.  The notion seems to be "well, they asked for it."

3. Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and the anthropological approach

David and Seinfeld like to situate their comedy inside contemporary life.  (Other comedians to hurl jokes from a safe distance, call this the catapult option.)   Their comedy depends upon a kind of participant observation, an anthropologist’s connection to the culture at hand.  Griffin isn’t just making fun of celebrities.  She plays one on TV. 

This makes for some good moments, some real insights, as when she asks the audience to notice when Oprah and Tyra Banks go from mainstream to ghetto.  This is a kind of code shifting that is now common in the African American community.  (I think of Will Smith as one of the most gifted, nuanced, code shifters in this community.   See Men In Black especially.)  Now, lots of people have noticed that "something’s going on here," but it takes a comedian like Griffin to make the thing plain.  Ah, American culture is just a little more self comprehending. 

But the problem here is that Griffin must occupy a sweet spot.  She has to be close enough to celebrity to talk about it but not so consumed by it to become the creature she’s making fun of.  This is where  Life on the D List comes in.  This gives us a semi-transparent, warts and all, portrait that helps keep Griffin in the world even as her celebrity accelerates.  She is surely C at this point, and it looks like B standing is now perhaps inevitable and A not unthinkable.   Hey, she’s already made The View.   

The good thing about Griffin’s anthropology is that it is pattern seeking, but it does not insist that pattern detection must be taken as proof of the essential corruption of the people or culture involved.  This was of course the fault of much of the media commentary of the 1990s and the thing that prevented it from rising to the level of something useful.  And we were so close.  Everyone was better at pattern detection, but something in the temper of the time demanded that conclusions could only be found at the end of a particular sheep run. 

4. Joan Rivers, and the "can we talk" strategy

Griffin lodges her anthropological reports in a particularly potent rhetoric form.  She dishes.  She gossips.  She is the outsider who is prepared to peach, to tell us what happened in the green room at Leno when Lindsay and Paris were…   

This is powerful because it makes the listener an insider too.  (Yes, it’s an illusion, but it’s a powerful one.  Even ordinary moments of gossip build this bond.)  I think Griffin  is much better at this than Rivers was.  The bond of complicity is tighter.  Rivers seemed to loath herself a little for what she was doing.  (She brayed because, you felt, she couldn’t do this in an ordinary voice.)  There is no whiff of ambivalence when it comes to Griffin.  She relishes the punishment she inflicts.  I think she is nastier than Rivers.  This is more personal.  More mean.  And we’re involved.

5. The "most mobile comedian" approach (not sure who deserves this designation, maybe it’s KG)

Griffin is very good at finding her way.  At one moment, she is claiming she doesn’t know what interests kids these days.  The next, she is throwing around the lingo like a champ.  One moment, she’s the star on stage.  The next, she is saying "I know" when the audience reacts, as if this were a personal conversation between KG and each and every member of the audience. One moment, she’s swearing like a sailor.  The next, she’s talking about manners.  But most of all, she is working that D-list sweet spot, and keeping herself suspended between big time celebrity and the rest of us.  This is a shifting border and she works it brilliantly. 

6. the trickster, punk, anarchist approach to comedy.

This is Leora Kornfeld territory and I hope she will forgive me if I offer a few thoughts.  We can put Griffin in that tradition of anarchist comedians: Tom Green, Martin Short as Jiminy Glick,  Sasha Baron Cohen.  This is the comedian who says, in the spirit on Punk refusal, I am not buying any of this.  This is the comedian that pierces the fictions so lovely crafted by the star machinery of Hollywood.  However much we admire celebrities, and perhaps because we admire them so much at the moment, we need this sort of thing as a cultural corrective.  But of course the celebs fight back and they do so with the artifice created in the 1990s, the one that said, "oh, sure, I’m prepared to make fun of myself."  It’s just painful to watch them play along with this attack on their public image.  I just end up hoping that no one’s packing.  I mean, this could get really ugly. 

Kathy Griffin is a rare cultural artifact.  It takes bags of intelligence, cunning and talent to make this kind of celebrity work.  And what’s really odd, there is no trace of the ambivalence that marks the careers of Roseann Barr, Joan Rivers, and Dave Chappelle.  I am not crazy about the act, but I have to say she’s a better comedian than I am an anthropologist.   Well, come to that, she might be a better anthropologist. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: muddles in the models.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  October 21, 2005. here