October 14, 2013

The Value Of Celebrity Losers

A close friend and former colleague of mine from the East Coast wrote last week to ask the following question:
Since you live on the West Coast, you are not bombarded with Eli Manning ads for Toyota, Dunkin Donuts and one or two others. 
Last night with three interceptions, Eli Manning led the NY Giants to their 6th loss of the season.
While discussing his performance at lunch yesterday, someone asked for my opinion on whether Eli is now hurting or helping these brands. I said I didn't have the vaguest idea but knew who to ask.
To frame the question... "Does a spokesperson for a losing team help or hurt sales and brand image?"
Advertisers spend  billions of dollars every year for celebrity endorsements and, on the whole, have no idea whether they pay off or not. They can measure all kinds of things that may represent effectiveness (awareness, likeability, etc) but as far as I'm concerned the only valid way to measure actual sales effectiveness is to do a controlled experiment in which the same campaign with and without the celebrity is run in identical markets.

Since there are no identical markets, and since very few advertisers have the resources or inclination to run a controlled experiment, we are stuck with anecdotes, self-selected case histories (only the successful write them up) and the qualitative conclusion that, in general, celebrities probably help. But, to my knowledge, there's very little in the way of conclusive proof.

But, as my friend asks, what about celebrity losers?

My psychology credentials are a tad thin, but I think we have to look at this question from that point of view.

First, I think we have to look at how we consciously process a celebrity endorsement. I believe that the key to our conscious response is that we pay more attention. When someone we are familiar with, particularly someone famous, is speaking, I believe we are more likely to notice it than when someone we don't know is speaking.

In today's world, with the enormous amount of messages bombarding us, getting someone's attention is very valuable. If a celebrity does nothing more than that, he is earning his money (of course, depending on how much he's being paid.)

The tricky part, and the part I am fabulously unqualified to answer, is the part that is not conscious i.e., our unconscious, or subconscious, responses to celebrity endorsers. It seems reasonable to me that when we are exposed enough times to an individual representing a brand, in our strangely human way some of the qualities of that individual get transferred to the brand.

However, if we are prepared to claim that the positive aspects of an endorser (credibility, likeability, trust) are transferable, we must also be prepared to assert that negative qualities of the endorser are also transferable.

The difficulty comes in determining when the tipping point arrives and someone who was a "winner" and is now a "loser" moves from an asset to a liability. In the case above, Manning may be on a losing team, and may be having a terrible season, but because of his history or his personality he may still command a good deal of respect and goodwill among the public, which still makes him a net asset.

There is also the creative aspect to consider. A good agency can "write" Manning in such a way as to make his challenges endearing. Some of our most popular characters are "loveable losers." (Growing up on the East Coast, I remember Ed Kranepool and "Marvelous" Marv Thoneberry popular anti-heroes of the NY Mets.) However, this is tricky and can backfire in the wrong hands.

All in all, my guess is that Manning still has some value to the advertisers. Not being on the East Coast, however, and not knowing the attitude of the man on the street, these things are hard for me to judge.

An interesting aspect of this is the role of the agency. It is usually the agency that suggests the use of a celebrity spokesman, and often for a multi-year deal. When a celebrity goes bad for moral or legal reasons, it's easy for the agency to recommend terminating the celebrity. Also there are sometimes clauses in agreements allowing advertisers to terminate for such reasons.

However, when an athlete goes bad for performance reasons, the agency is in a tough spot. Particularly when the advertisers are franchise groups (as are Toyota and Dunkin Donuts.)

Having worked with franchise groups, I can tell you that the one thing they hate above all others is non-media ad costs. If they've paid someone for a couple of years and paid to produce spots with him, he could be having the worst season since the invention of the jock strap and I guarantee you they're still going to air them.


Cecil B. DeMille said...

There are many examples of "losers" being used a spokespeople. Any amount of celebrity apparently makes one capable of endorsing *something*. Haven't won a race in a couple of years? No problem, Dale, Jr. Hold this Diet Dew.

I wish I could say there's a better way to spend the money these days. Sadly, with the industry being bereft of ideas, I think you're going to see more famous people in lieu.

C. Haskell said...

Bob Dole lost an election and Viagra, Pepsi, and Visa all capitalized on him in very effective ways I think. He had the guts to do a Viagra ad. Pepsi had an agency smart enough to do an ad that made FUN of the Viagra ad. And Visa had an agency who was smart enough to write a script with Bob Dole saying "I just can't win." Solid creative ideas and use of celebrity.

Fast forward 10+ years. We have Peyton Manning in an Oreo fuckoff competition about nothing that was about the worst campaign I've ever seen. (see Shanghai61's comment; spot on)

Summary: Saavy writers, agencies, and celebs = success. Lazy writers, dumb agencies, vacuous celebs = shit.

My 2¢.