The Big Lie – the complete book online - 14 Endorsement

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Chapter 14

Hitch your wagon to an icon

Endorsement

A famous 1960s photograph shows Jackie Kennedy laughing while her infant son John-John playfully tries to tug a pearl necklace over her head. The pearls are fake and the necklace has no intrinsic value. Three decades later, when Sotheby’s planned its 1996 auction of the personal effects of the late Jackie Onassis, this piece of costume jewellery was estimated at $500 to $700. It went for $211,500. Sotheby’s had estimated the total sale would fetch four million dollars. It realised forty million.

Celebrities add commercial value to anything they rub up against, for two reasons. Firstly, they lend extrinsic interest, or “glamour” to the ordinary. Some advertisers exploit this with crude directness. A 1994 American advertisement in upmarket magazines began: “The Duchess of Windsor Wore this Pin”, and the text declared, “Now you can wear it too. . . If made of real gems, this pin would cost over $10,000. But like the Duchess of Windsor, you can own this authentic Kenneth Jay Lane panther pin for just $49.95”. More profoundly, celebrities increase worth because they have come to represent certain values in the public mind. By personifying these, they become brands themselves, summarising and simplifying complex ideas which they symbolise more vividly and more persuasively than any intellectual articulation. John Wayne’s swagger says more about the he-man values of America’s frontier heritage than volumes of political speeches. And, as the New York Times commented about the prices paid for the keepsakes of Jackie Onassis, “They are not selling things. They are selling yesterday, when the world was young”.

People seem to have an insatiable interest in anyone who has been touched by the fleeting spotlight of publicity: those whose greatest attribute is topicality. Why do we find them so interesting? Perhaps because today we live not in hierarchical communities, but in increasingly separate worlds. Our status is known to our friends, family and colleagues. But if we want to impress others outside this intimate circle, we have to invoke symbols with which they are familiar. Celebrities are the lingua franca.

In his 1961 book, The Image, professor of sociology Daniel J. Boorstin memorably characterised a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness” (later sharpened, doubtless by a media professional, into “famous for being famous”). His inspiration itself came from an advertisement – for a book called The Celebrity Register, a listing which the copy described as “the ‘names’ who, once made news, [who] now make news by themselves”. Boorstin distinguishes between the celebrity and the genuine hero who has achieved something significant, such as Charles Lindbergh:

 

The hero is made by folklore, sacred texts, and history books, but the celebrity is the creature of gossip, of public opinion, of magazines, newspapers, and the ephemeral images of movie and television screen. The passage of time, which creates and establishes the hero, destroys the celebrity. One is made, the other unmade, by repetition. The celebrity is born in the daily papers and never loses the mark of his fleeting origin.1

 

The dissociation of fame from achievement reached its apotheosis with the invention of supermodels: people whose value depends on how well they reflect contemporary aesthetic ideals when wearing a costume. Nor is heroism expected from members of the British royal family, who are famous by virtue of having been born. Even minor royals carry great cachet in America, where the former Duchess of York has endorsed cranberry juice and a range of diet products. Is her fame less deserved than that of Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1928 lent her photograph to an advertisement for Simmons mattresses? At the conclusion of a century in which popular media have fudged the line between fact and fiction, Boorstin’s distinction is a difficult one. The leaders of the two great world powers in the 1980s were surely engaged in seriously useful activities. Yet movie actor Ronald Reagan had been the genial spokesman for the General Electric Company (“Progress is our most important product”) and Chesterfield cigarettes (“They satisfy”) in the 1950s, long before he was selected to play a similar role for his nation. Less credible was the part played by his former adversary, the last leader of the Soviet Union, in a 1997 commercial. Mikhail Gorbachev thought it was worth debasing his reputation as an ex-world leader for, reportedly, the best part of $1 million, to feature in a skit set in his country where a debate on his contribution to the Russian political economy was settled by a female supporter who declared, “Because of him we have things like Pizza Hut”. Many politicians who have established vivid reputations have become advertising endorsers. In 1997 alone, Nigel Lawson, Ken Livingstone, Denis Healey, and George Bush joined Gorbachev as television hucksters. Celebrities sprout wherever the limelight lingers: in politics, sport, entertainment, high society, and increasingly, the media which present these activities.

Why would the health insurance plan HSA employ a minor celebrity, Olympic Gold Medal rowing champion Steve Redgrave, in its 1998 posters, simply to point out that he’s a customer? Yes, he looks brimming with good health, but what’s the connection? Often there is none. Being well known, celebrities are assumed to be successful, and they bestow a halo of success on anything in which they partake. Magazines have long known that the best way to boost sales is to feature a celebrity on the cover. (They can afford to because legally the rights to a negative belong to the photographer, not the celebrity.)

At the peak of their fame very popular celebrities can sell almost anything. In postwar Britain the face of cricketing star Denis Compton, though not particularly handsome, beamed down from hoardings everywhere. His record-breaking performance as batsman brightened a drab, rationed world, and so one slogan read “Men people look to – use Brylcreem”. Compton was a totem of broad general appeal, embodying a kind of latter-day royal warrant. Exclusive shops like Asprey gained endorsement for their goods “by appointment to His Majesty King George VI”, but the man on the Clapham omnibus deferred to the king of sport. Compton was paid £200 per year for the use of his reputation. By the early 1990s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were fuelling the soft-drink wars by lavishing millions of pounds on celebrity endorsements. Pepsi recruited Michael J. Fox , Tina Turner, and Michael Jackson. Coca-Cola retaliated with Jerry Hall and Elton John. At the height of his fame the latter was known to be so expensive that his sponsorship of Diet Coke dispelled rumours that the company might discontinue that variant of the product.

Celebrities are rarely seen as whole human beings, but as shorthand caricatures. Sometimes their appeal can be encapsulated in a simple vivid image or catchphrase: Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and cane and bow-legged walk, Mae West’s “Come up and see me sometime”. These are the equivalent of a brand’s trademark or slogan. Audiences do not want to see their personalities develop. They demand more and more of the same. Advertisers want to use them because of what they represent, not to offer anything strikingly new. And so celebrities quickly become typecast: each fresh appearance reinforces the same image. While superstars may have a somewhat elastic appeal, every celebrity has a particular area of greatest perceived competence.

A new type of liquid shaving-cream in a tiny bottle sold at a high price had a claim which invited disbelief: you only need to use a few, almost invisible drops. To gain credibility, England rugby captain Will Carling was used to endorse the product, not only because rugby players are macho, but because, as they let their whiskers grow before matches, they know about tough stubble too. A new kind of fundraising charge card launched by the Charities Aid Foundation used as its spokesman James Fox, an actor less famous for his acting than the fact that he dropped out of the profession in the 1970s to join a monastic order. Though Americans don’t easily identify with losers, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer made an astute choice when it selected Bob Dole, the unsuccessful 1996 Republican presidential candidate, to front a 1999 American advertisement aiming to dispel the embarrassing stigma surrounding erectile dysfunction. Bob Dole, vanquished by the priapic Bill Clinton, had publicly admitted to this problem, and although the product wasn’t mentioned in this apparently high-minded appeal, Pfizer markets Viagra.

But celebrities are often used more clumsily. A 1998 press ad for the Citroën Xsar interspersed photographs of the car and supermodel Claudia Schiffer under the headline, “What gives Claudia Schiffer confidence?” The copy drew analogies between her construction and that of the car. “Could it be her body? . . . Could it be her side profile?
. . . Or could it be her rear?” And even, though this was an unlikely allusion for a scrawny supermodel, “Could it be her airbags?”

Comedians are popular endorsers; they have broad appeal and their performances have established a singularity of character. Leslie Nielsen, the star of the dumbed-down Airplane and Naked Gun films, was perhaps an appropriate selection for the Red Rock cider commercials which won awards in the mid-1990s, because his irreverent, zany antics formed the whole basis of the appeal of the brand. But the pratfall can be a pitfall. The anarchic qualities of the comic are not always in sympathy with the personality of serious brands. Whenever Rowan Atkinson appeared in a commercial, the audience instantly recognised the supercilious anti-hero of Blackadder and the nasty, accident-prone Mr Bean. Through the one-upmanship humour of his long-standing campaign for Barclaycard in the 1980s and 1990s, the bank wilfully associated itself with a character whose arrogant and venal schemes always ended in ignominious failure. These advertisements were very popular, but what was the effect on the bank’s image? Equally, George Cole, the actor who had achieved fame playing a devious conman, Arthur Daley, in the highly popular TV series Minder, seemed an odd choice of front-man for the financial products of the 1990s Leeds Building Society. The much-loved 1970s campaign for Cinzano, which attempted to position the brand as a more sophisticated tipple, gained its laughs by using the comic actor Leonard Rossiter to portray the Cinzano-drinker as a smarmy oaf who spills the drink over his crotch, though the balance was perhaps retrieved by casting the sophisticated Joan Collins against him.

Celebrity endorsement loses its sparkle if it is perceived as personal aggrandisement or an attempt to revive fading popularity. It can self-destruct if the personality later fails to live up to the public image or offends public decency. In the US, rankings of celebrity appeal are published regularly. Burt Reynolds was one of the nation’s favourites until 1994, when he dropped off the list completely after publicly suggesting to his estranged wife that they settle an alimony dispute by taking lie-detector tests to discover who had committed adultery first. In 1992 Sony signed a contract worth billions to hire Michael Jackson, who commanded the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of fans all over the world. But the mojo stopped working for Michael two years later, when a court action in the US brought his sexual habits to public attention, and the sponsor dropped him.

Promiscuity devalues the currency of celebrity. The managers of instant marketing creations like the Spice Girls, mindful of pop music’s short product lifecycle, slap their names on as many products as they can as quickly as they can. In contrast, as the most highly prized (and priced) celebrity endorser of the 1990s, the American basketball player Michael Jordan, carefully chose the brands he associated with, such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, while rejecting others, and so acquired an all-American symbolism, thus adding a new facet to his glory.

“Celebrity brands” short-cut the lengthy process of building up brand value by cashing in on the perceived personal qualities of the celebrity. Success is not automatic: amongst those who have tried and failed to convert their image into a branded product are Julio Iglesias, Sophia Loren, Cher, Bjorn Borg, Michael Jackson, Joan Collins, and Princess Stephanie of Monaco. However, when personality and product are well matched, the brand promise is clear and powerful. Film star Paul Newman has successfully marketed salad dressing and other food products under his own name since 1982. The rationale is that his friends liked the sauces he served at dinner parties so much that they wanted to buy them, which fits well with his easy-going, home-loving image. Prince Charles licenses a range of biscuits called The Prince of Wales Duchy Originals. Perfume is the most attractive field for personality brands, because it is sold exclusively on glamour. The more closely the star is involved, the greater the chances of success. Elizabeth Taylor’s brand, White Diamonds, succeeded because of her willingness to make personal appearances at department stores.

When a celebrity is so closely associated with a product, it takes on all his or her attributes, for better or worse. Celebrity brands can crumple as quickly as they flower. Helmsley Hotels were established by Mrs Helmsley, a wealthy New Yorker of considerable chutzpah, and their advertisements traded on her fastidious attention to detail for the comfort of her guests. After her famously indiscreet public remark, “Only poor people pay taxes”, she was sent to prison for income tax evasion in the early 1990s. Many companies might have considered changing the name of the hotels. But the Helmsley chain reasoned these events had only burnished her reputation for bloody-minded intransigence. Mrs Helmsley no longer appeared in the advertisements but her spirit lived on. To anyone unacquainted with her history they would have been incomprehensible. The new headline read, “Say what you will, she runs a helluva hotel”. The copy reassured readers that “details are constantly polished, perfect and inspected to make sure we always satisfy you. And you-know-who”. The only mention of the tyrant in question appeared in small print: “While Mrs. Helmsley doesn’t personally operate or manage the Helmsley hotels, the high standards she has set are meticulously kept”.

Advertisers sometimes attempt to avoid real-life problems by creating fictional celebrities. “Beatie”, the Jewish mama played by Maureen Lipman, was invented by British Telecom (BT) in the 1980s. In BT’s playlets based on Jewish stereotypes she became one of advertising most recognisable characters. While “Beatie” was immensely popular, not everyone thought these characterisations were harmless fun, her role began to overwhelm the commercial message, and she was eventually replaced in 1993 by advertisements with less edge. Or, as BT’s marketing director put it, “The character has become too strong and it’s impossible to use that vehicle subtly now”.

Where the fictional creation is the name used for the brand it has a much longer useful life than a mere human, and its image will have to adapt to evolving consumer attitudes. Aunt Jemima was the invention of a Missouri businessman who created a self-raising pancake mix in 1889. He borrowed the brand name from a popular vaudeville song of the era, and decorated his packaging with a jolly smiling “mammy” wearing a red bandanna. When he sold out to the Quaker Oats company, it continued the theme. Copywriters, of course, wrote in her idiom, as in this 1918 advertisement in the Ladies’ Home Journal: “Yo’ know how de men folks an de young folks all loves my tasty pancakes, an’ you can make dem fo’ dem jiffy quick, an jus’ right every time, wid my magic-ready-mix”. In the 1960s the company began to react to attacks against this stereotype by black power leaders. Aunt Jemima’s bust and hips deflated and she acquired a more stylish headband. By 1989 she had gone on a crash diet and binned the bandanna altogether in favour of a perm and a pair of pearl earrings, the uniform of the American middle-class “Mom” of any colour. In 1995 the image was personified by Gladys Knight, the 1960s soul artist, now singing jingles while making breakfast for her grandchildren. This transformation generated a whole new wave of protests from African-Americans, an ethnic group unrecognised at the time Aunt Jemima was conceived. They demanded, unsuccessfully, that she be finally be dismissed from the scullery, along with Uncle Ben, the venerable image of a courtly black manservant used to promote rice.

America’s General Mills Company handled the transition more subtly. Betty Crocker is the mythical figure invented in 1920 to lend her name to a range of cake mixes. She was represented on packaging and in national magazines by illustrations of the archetypal mature American housewife. As popular radio stations were local, several different voice artists were use to portray Betty Crocker with the appropriate accent in each region. When national television arrived in the 1950s it presented General Mills with a dilemma. Several candidates were screen-tested to select one woman with whom the whole nation could identify. Because by this time Betty Crocker was a true celebrity. Only one third of American women deduced that she was an actress; another third thought she was a real, living person; and the rest were illogical: they realised she was only a representation of Betty Crocker, but nevertheless felt somehow she must be more than just an actress. The wishful reasoning was along these lines: “If there isn’t a real, live person called Betty Crocker, there probably is someone very much like that, who would say something like that, and I would believe her”. It is this cognitive dissonance which the company exploits. Betty Crocker was white, of course, and this too became an issue. Forty years on, when the Betty Crocker brand was seventy-five years old, General Mills staged a promotion in which women of all ethnic groups were asked to send in photos of themselves. Seventy-five were selected and fused by computer into a politically correct image of Betty Crocker for the 1990s.

Expert status can be conferred on whole groups of individuals. The successful international brand Fisherman’s Friend doesn’t advertise much, but the package shows fishermen wearing oilskins, and we all believe a fisherman should know about sore throats. However, he would be of little credibility for relieving period pains. To maintain credulity, endorsers must stay within their perceived roles. When Victor Kiam, the man who bought the Remington company, and later Ronson, urged us to try his products, his self-interest was apparent. But we could accept his word, with all the normal caveats we might apply to the exhortations of the enthusiastic businessman. For people in other roles, disinterest is important. Scientists have a reputation for scrupulous accuracy. However, as soon as one appears in an advertisement, he is tainted – a kind of ethical Heisenberg principle. The perception is that advertising traffics in dishonesty. Thus the appearance of Professor Steve Jones, evolutionary geneticist at University College London, in a mood of controlled hysteria in a futuristic car commercial, while increasing his celebrity quotient, may well have unsettled viewers who knew of his reputation, and certainly could not have done a great deal to enhance his own standing within his profession.

In 1961, Daniel J. Boorstin claimed that the celebrity was always an ephemeral contemporary. He was on shaky ground even then. The appeal of nostalgia was a well-known advertising device, and photographs of long-dead icons of stage and screen could be used to invoke glamour. The power of celebrities outlasts death; indeed, the best celebrities are dead celebrities. The usage fees are lower, and their image is frozen in time; being dead, they can do nothing to tarnish it. In 1997 the Gap campaign reminded us that maverick male sex symbols as diverse as Humphrey Bogart, Pablo Picasso, Gene Kelly, Steve McQueen, James Dean, Allen Ginsberg, and Ernest Hemingway wore khakis (though Gap wasn’t around when they did). Hemingway has become an industry, as his estate has licensed furniture which he did not design, fountain pens he did not use, and The Hemingway Cookbook, which he did not write. The new technology combines old film footage with new, bringing long-dead film stars back to life to strut their stuff for commerce again. In 1994 Elton John jammed with the shades of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, and Louis Armstrong for Diet Coke, while Steve McQueen drove once more over the hills of San Francisco hills in a new Ford Puma. In 1997 Marilyn Monroe was still promoting Chanel No. 5, while Fred Astaire was a pitchman for Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. Eighteen years after his murder, the spirit of John Lennon was invoked to plug One2One mobile phones when DJ Chris Evans was plummeted onto the mattress Lennon had shared with Yoko Ono in his famous week-long 1969 “bed-in” peace protest. In 1999 the living comedian Stephen Fry hosted a dinner party for a number of famous celluloid phantoms in a television commercial for After Eight mints.

A perfectly targeted 1998 television commercial for the Ford Cougar demonstrated the emotional power of the well-chosen celebrity. Its hero, the 62-year-old American actor Dennis Hopper, did not have to say a word, because the entire commercial was built on cultural references shared by the intended audience, people near his own generation. He drove the car down a desert highway to the sound of the 1960s anthem “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. An apparition grew out of the heat haze behind – a shaggy drop-out in a battered cowboy hat astride a souped-up motorbike. It was, of course, the 33-year-old Dennis Hopper, in footage lifted from Easy Rider, the seminal road movie he had made with Peter Fonda in 1969. Through the easy magic of electronic imagery, the two personifications drove side by side – mature, quizzical Dennis in his snappy charcoal suit and his flaky younger self. At a lunch stop, the waitress flirted with the older Dennis, ignoring hippy Dennis at the next table. Back on the road, the older Dennis accelerated away with a grin, leaving the image of his hippy past dwindling in the rear-screen mirror. Maturity wins the contest with youth, with a strong whiff of nostalgia. For those who recognise the responsibilities of maturity but still yearn for the youthful independence of the open road, the Ford Cougar hit the mark.

 

Celebrity “testimonials” can be wickedly influential. They are effective because we happily defer judgement to celebrities. Our infatuation is an abdication of responsibility. There is no freedom of choice where one is in thrall to another personality – living or dead, real or fictional.

1 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, Atheneum, 1961.