In his book, ‘Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom writes:
“I’ve been asked more than once to ‘brand’ a celebrity, the most recent being a well-known television star. In general, I use the same playbook I use with royalty, with a few crucial differences. Unlike royal families, celebrities lack bloodlines, history, timeworn rituals, or pageantry (other than strolling the red carpet at one of the year’s countless awards ceremonies. And unlike royal families, traditional celebrities have attained fame through talent (though this is becoming less and less the case, and if you don’t believe me, watch a season or two of ‘Dancing with the Stars’), whether that talent is acting, singing, dancing, or athleticism (although sheer good looks don’t hurt either). Yes, our celebrities are like disposable royals in that they are wealthy, powerful, and surrounded by a squadron of agents, managers, publicists, and bodyguards.
But the most important thing they have in common is our envy. We want to be them. Barring that, we want to be like them. So I suppose it’s no surprise that advertisers and marketers pay celebrities of all stripes – from actors to athletes to reality TV stars – enormous sums of money to sell us everything from clothing to cars to breakfast cereal to sports drinks.
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Most people are aware that celebrity marketing exists (after all, it’s hard to miss). But what many are unaware of is how well it’s working. According to an online survey sent to 11,000 adults and teens across the country, the large majority of us believe that the celebrities who appear in advertising or endorsements do not – repeat, do not – affect our purchasing decisions. In fact, more than 80 percent of respondents claim they would buy the products they like, regardless of whether or not there was a celebrity endorsement.
Well, guess what? I believe them. At least I believe they don’t think they’re being seduced or persuaded by celebrity advertising. But that’s exactly the point. As the chief industry analyst of NPD Insights, Marshal Cohen, points out, ‘Sometimes it is an unseen influence that triggers the consumer’s attention or encourages a product purchase. A celebrity-associated product can be a very powerful, subliminal purchase influence. In some cases, it may even be the reason a consumer recognizes a brand or product, just based on the mere fact a celebrity is associated with it.’
Studies have also shown that when celebrities appear in advertisements or endorse products, not only do we perceive the brand messages as more authentic, but it also enhances our recognition and recall of the product in question. So when we see that product (whether it’s Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume, the Triscuits with Rachael Ray on the box, or the Nike sneaker endorsed by Rafael Nadal), we reach instinctively and often quite unconsciously for that product over the non-celebrity variety.
There’s even evidence to suggest that the persuasive power of celebrity is biologically based. One Dutch study found that seeing a celebrity endorse a product – in this case a pair of shoes – actually alters a woman’s brain activity. In this fascinating study, researchers scanned 24 women’s brains as they viewed 40 color photos of both famous and non-famous women, all wearing the same footwear. Results showed that when the women looked at the celebrity photos, there was heightened activity in part of the brain associated with the feeling of affection (the medial orbitofrontal cortex), activity that was absent when the women looked at the photos of the non-celebrities. Another recent UK study, which found that even average, ho-hum-looking celebrity models in ads produce a more intense emotional response in us than breathtakingly gorgeous non-celebrity endorsers, concluded that not only is fame even more powerful than beauty in persuading us to buy something, but there may actually be a dedicated area of the human brain that’s become hardwired to respond positively to celebrity-endorsed products.
Given that humans appear to have a practically innate attraction to fame (it also helps that talk of celebrities, like the weather or sports, establishes a common conversational ground among relative strangers and helps us feel a sense of belonging), I suppose it’s no surprise that over the past decade the number of ‘famous’ people in the press has tripled. You read that right: tripled. Thanks to reality TV and the Internet, both of which have provided all kinds of new (if somewhat ridiculous) avenues for celebrity, the boundaries of what it means to be ‘famous’ have expanded beyond our wildest imaginations. Celebrities aren’t just athletes and movie stars anymore; today they include YouTube sensations (like Chris Crocker, the Britney Spears ‘superfan’), MySpace phenomena (think Tila Tequila), celebrity bloggers (like Perez Hilton), and, of course, reality television personalities (too many to name), many of whom have inexplicably managed to parlay their 15 minutes of fame into an hour, at least.
Accordingly, the percentage of ads worldwide using celebrities has doubled (to roughly 17 percent) in the past decade. And let’s not forget celebrities who are famous just for serving celebrities: all the doctors, dentists, plastic surgeons, real estate agents, chefs, bloggers, fashion designers, cosmeticians, hairdressers, party planners, choreographers, and florists to the stars. As Hamish Pringle writes in ‘Celebrity Sells,’ the proportion of UK ads featuring a celebrity is now one in give, an increase of nearly 100 percent in a single decade. In the United States, this figure stands at one in four.