Fame, Fortune or Failure: The Life of Celebrity Endorsements
Athletes, comedians, singers, actors, and more recently social media influencers are often strategically paired with certain brands in an effort to grow both the reach and image of the brand. Celebrity endorsements are in all forms of media consumption. The term “celebrity” implies that the individual has experienced some level of distinguishable accomplishments within a disciple (Osei-Frimpong, Donkor & Owusu-Frimpong, 2019). Companies utilize celebrities for their pre-established public recognition to help promote a product, service, good or brand. The allure engrained in the celebrity status plays on the consumer fantasy, thus enticing purchase decisions. Components such as activeness, likeability and trustworthiness are valued to determine if the persona meets the expectations of the viewers and the company. The celebrity chosen should represent the values of the product, while also having his/her personal charisma transfer a new component of excitement to the brand.
Overall the objective of celebrity endorsements is simple: to sell more products. The celebrity is encouraged to inform the public, while also influencing ad effectiveness, brand recognition, brand recall, purchase intention and buying behavior (Osei-Frimpong, Donkor & Owusu-Frimpong, 2019). Yet, celebrity lives are explored and exploited in ways that often lead to undesirable scandals or negative press. Adverse situations can transfer to companies associated with the celebrity, creating undesirable effects (Runyan, White, Goddard & Wilbur 2009). Before a company commits to a marketing campaign with a celebrity, it is imperative to ensure alignment with their short- and long-term brand goals.
Celebrity Endorsements: The Origin Story
Figure 1: Queen Victoria with her daughter, Princess Beatrice, being featured in a Cadbury’s Cocoa print ad from the 1890s (ALAMY, 2010).
The use of celebrities in advertisements dates as far back as the late nineteenth century with Queen Victoria and Cadbury’s Cocoa. Endorsements continued to emerge with the growth of cinema, radio and television. For some time, it was considered taboo to associate with a brand, essentially considered a sell-out when an actor would be a “brand presenter.” That stigma evolved over time as the industry grew and commercials became more common and celebrity endorsement became accepted (Erdogan, 1999).
What is a “celebrity?”
Endorsers can be broken down into three general categories: typical, celebrity and expert. A typical endorser is a noncelebrity spokesperson, while an expert has comprehensive knowledge about a specific topic (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019). When the term celebrity is thrown around, a main criterion includes having some type of fanbase. More recently, with the rise of social media, influencers or “micro-celebrities” have joined the ranks as social media experts. Outlets, such as Instagram or Snapchat, have made becoming a brand ambassador or a product reviewer a full-time job for everyday people. This niche pushes the boundaries between celebrity, expert and average— and marketers have taken notice.
Consumers use social media as a consistent part of their daily routine. In 2018, Instagram users spent 257 minutes monthly on the app (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono, 2019). Marketers use social media to inform, influence, and target consumers of a brand or product, while also maintaining customer relationships, developing customer-based brand equity, and monitoring customer perceptions. Sharing images that are mobile-friendly has proven to be an effective, persuasive tactic. Social media further perpetuates learned associations from endorsers and products via repeated exposure (Erdogan, 1999; Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019).
Self-branding, creating branding qualities around an individual, has had a major influx on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Youtube. As public figures, individuals can build a following that target specific demographics and popular topics such as fitness, beauty or food (Khamis, Ang & Welling, 2016). Marketers can easily determine if the influencer’s target demographic aligns with the product based on the content shared to the millions of followers for promotion (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019; Schouten, Janssen & Verspaget, 2019).
Since influencers are willing to expose so much of their daily life with the public, often focusing in a specific domain, consumers will rely on their judgement. Although companies are seeking a universal goal among endorsers to push their company-sponsored content, some research suggests that there are higher levels of consumer trustworthiness in influencer promotions than celebrity endorsements (Schouten, Janssen & Verspaget, 2019). Yet, by influencers assuming the role of an “ordinary” person to appear relatable, the perception of expertise may diminish.
Trust and motivation are some of the key components to successful endorsements. Transparency in terms of sponsored content on social media has been at the forefront of the United States Federal Trade Commission (USFTC). To give more protection to the consumers, endorsers are required to clearly disclose any monetary incentives from a company when reviewing a product on a social media platform. Captions often include “#ad, #sponsored, or #promotion” as a means of disclaiming any confusion about their relationship with a company. Celebrities are often not as explicit when sharing information or reviews about a partnership, resulting in complaints with the USFTC (Lookadoo & Wong, 2019). The lack of consistency in revealing sponsored content among celebrities may contribute to consumers placing greater trust in influencers, but ultimately the endorser must be aspiring to effectively drive a purchase. More so than influencers, celebrities are perceived by consumers as motivating leaders (Osei-Frimpong, Donkor & Owusu-Frimpong, 2019).It is the celebrities who have social influence based on conforming expectations and providing information about a product. Through the normative and informational means of persuasion, celebrities can really help develop purchasing patterns.
How well are endorsements working—is it worth it?
Some companies, such as Fabletics by Kate Hudson, have dedicated a sizable investment in promoters ranging from celebrities to influencers. By saturating the target demographic with similar representatives to spread the word about the brand, community, message and deals, the company hopes to generate repeat purchases and loyal consumers. Fabletics even launched a promoter program in the beginning of 2019, including metrics such as likes, comments and social reach to assess promoter success. And for Fabletics, the promoter program appears to be successful! Fabletics boasts on its website that it currently has over 1,500,000 VIP members, with 12,800,000 orders shipped. The company program works to create long-term, candid relationships to further engagement and future purchases. Kate Hudson’s company is honing in on each type of endorser with the expectation of return on investment from the power of the #recommendation.
Don’t let the fame get to your head…
Other research using methods like eye-tracking is being used to assess the effectiveness or even harm that endorsers can do to a product or brand (Feliz & Borges, 2014). Based on the level of fame recognition, the use of a celebrity may distract attention from the product or it may promote more positive associations towards purchase intent (Osei-Frimpong, Donkor & Owusu-Frimpong, 2019). So, where do we draw the line between attractiveness and distractedness? As with most things, the answer is subjective.
One repeatedly understood trend among consumers is the value placed in trustworthiness, likability, persuasiveness, believability, and a move towards honesty and accountability (Feliz & Borges, 2014). Consumers understand that a foundational aspect in being an endorser is communication. The importance of clarity is further recognized by influencers who must disclaim any affiliations or incentives upfront to dispel any concern for bias. Furthermore, influencers must actively work to establish foundational similarities and evoke wishful identification with their audience to compel consumers to engage in their content (Schouten, Janssen & Verspaget, 2019). Unlike noncelebrities, consumers inherently consider celebrities to be more credible. Even if the product lacks any legitimacy, consumers are usually drawn to the attractiveness and familiarity of the celebrity (Osei-Frimpong, Donkor & Owusu-Frimpong, 2019). By initially capturing interest, a celebrity is granted a window of opportunity to instill the product message and spotlight characteristics that are attractive to consumers. When the consumer creates associations and becomes acquainted with the endorser, trust is built. To ensure the effectiveness of an endorser, pre-testing is a useful tactic to project how a certain individual-product combination will play out.
Is there really “no such thing as bad publicity?”
Consumers, as normal human beings, need to learn quickly in today’s fast-moving, volatile world. Confirmation bias, our tendency to assume new information supports past experiences or beliefs, adds an important element when considering endorsement deals. Consumers invest in not only the function of the product, but also the meaning attached to it. Similarly, consumer associations of a celebrity endorser can transfer to the product (Runyan, White, Goddard & Wilbur 2009). For example, if a celebrity is known for breaking the law or indulging in inappropriate behavior, consumers are more likely to believe slander in the tabloids. Even if the scandal is later proven to be untrue, the celebrity image can be tarnished by conspiracies, thus negatively influencing the company via association. While celebrity endorsements are more often successful, there is a high risk that investing in an unpredictable celebrity could have negative effects.
Sidenote fun fact: Pepsi and Beyonce signed a celebrity endorsement deal for $50 million in 2012. That’s a lot of honey for Queen B and her Beyhive.
Pepsi has had its fair share of flops or controversies when it comes to celebrity endorsements, and yet continues to utilize this tactic. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and most recently Kendall Jenner, have all had negative scandals associated with ads for Pepsi, yet the company continues to spend on celebrity initiatives (Erdogan, 1999). A company must remember that it is not only the celebrity that gets scrutinized, but it can also be the content of the ad itself. The “Live Now” campaign with Kendall Jenner drinking a Pepsi hoped to captivate the young target demographic by having a unifying message. In this situation, the ad involves a protest with young demonstrators that Kendall Jenner joins and gives a Pepsi to an officer. The problem was that Pepsi overlooked the potential of polarizing the target audience. And in today’s fast-paced social media, many on both sides were quick to rip the ad and company apart, thus ultimately undermining the “unity” marketing goal (Taylor, 2017).
So, what were the consequences? Ironically, 44% of US consumers felt more favorably towards Pepsi, with only 25% having a more negative view, and 31% having an unchanged perspective showing that the small vocal group dominating social media platforms did not accurately represent consumers (Taylor, 2017). The Kendall Jenner Pepsi incident demonstrates the importance of strategizing image polishing to prevent public controversy during the advertisement run, but also that the repercussions may not be all that detrimental in the long run.
Another common objective of celebrity endorsement involves brand repositioning or accessing and transferring the celebrity capital (public image and level of recognition) to a brand. Anticipating the stage life-cycle of the celebrity, his/her current position in it and the likelihood of the cycle to continue needs to be considered (Erdogan, 1999). Kendall Jenner fit the mold of the target demographic of Pepsi’s youthful and exciting image, and as part of the Kardashian empire, Kendall Jenner is well known among young adults and adolescents. The ad just failed to account for the environment to which it was releasing the ad and all its interpreted messaging.
So, what can or should a company do first?
In order to ensure the celebrity chosen is a good fit, pre-testing methods can be utilized to gauge the target audience in order to better prepare for a campaign launch. Implicit testing, MaxDiff and certain types of biometric tools, such as galvanic skin response (GSR), have capabilities useful as diagnostic tools to better understand if a certain public figure will help or hinder an ad. Arousal has been tested as a strong indicator of web motivational power, while pleasure has been shown to suggest acceptance and further learning (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019). Learning about cognitive and affective states helps to uncover what captivates the audience. As mentioned previously, using pre-testing for celebrity campaigns can minimize risk by revealing the influential components and preventable problematic situations. Negative publicity does not significantly influence the associations between celebrity endorsers and consumer purchase intention according to Osei-Frimpong, Donkor, and Owusu-Frimpong (2019); consumers simply put value in other factors when making a buying decision. To reap all the benefits of the investment of a celebrity endorser, it would only make sense to take precautionary steps to ensure high rates of success.
In short, celebrity endorsements are an impactful marketing strategy, as seen in the reoccurrence of this marketing strategy in all forms of media consumption (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019). Celebrity endorsements include benefits such as developing a brand personality, relaying a message and grabbing the attention of the viewer (Runyan, White, Goddard & Wilbur 2009); however, consumer evaluation is fickle. To minimize the risk of negative perception, marketers must evaluate the type of impact a celebrity will have on their advertising process.
Be Cognizant, Not Cocky
Celebrity endorsements, over any other kind, have been proven to be most influential (Kusumasondjaja & Tjiptono 2019). With this powerful impact comes added responsibility. Social and cultural dimensions will have a stronger effect when utilizing celebrity endorsements. Be aware. It is important to be sensitive to the climate of whatever topics are being addressed in the ad campaign. Consider all perspectives and be flexible when listening to critiques. Target demographics resonate with campaigns that are relatable. The industry is molding to emphasize effective communication. Marketing must embrace the new mediums of consumption to perpetuate engagement in order to take advantage of the new data potential. Liking, in both the traditional and now technological sense, is an extremely valuable metric. Presumably, people tend to buy what they like. Implementing a focus on consumers immediate reaction to the ad in conjunction with the traditional measures of brand attitudes, intentions and sales will provide stronger insight into the endorser’s influence (Feliz & Borges, 2014). By marrying strategic traditional tools with newfound innovations, an environment can be established for the right celebrity to enhance any message.
ALAMY. (2010, January 19). The best Cadbury advertisements over the years. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/7026690/The-best-Cadbury-advertisements-over-the-years.html?image=14
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Taylor, C. R. (2017). How to avoid marketing disasters: Back to the basic communications model, but with some updates illustrating the importance of e-word-of-mouth research.