The trend of creating product lines around a celebrity started around the 1940s. Farrah Fawcett was the first major celebrity to merit a dedicated line of cosmetics named after her by Faberge Inc. It took another 40 years, the 1980s, for companies and firms to start making products around celebrities. In 1984 Nike signed on the talented young basketball player Michael Jordan and launched Nike ‘Air’ as a global product line around him. By the 2000s, the celebrity personal-branded endorsement phenomenon was well established. Nike signed Tiger Woods in 1996. By 2002, Woods’ endorsement had brought in USD 50 million increase in sales of golf balls! There were downers too. The boxing demi-god Muhammad Ali actually ended up endorsing d-Con Roach Traps! The advertising went on to ask consumers to ‘kill roaches without poison’. Ali urged buyers to, “Use them (Roach Traps) where you don’t want to spray … like around food and dishes. I think they’re beautiful. ’Specially since my picture’s on the box.” Yuck!
Back to the 1980s trend of creating celebrity-named products, Standard Brands Inc, for example, created a new candy bar called ‘Reggie’, after New York Yankees' superstar Reggie Jackson. In 1989 in the US, out of 59 celebrities employed by Coke, 48 were athletes. Almost 75% of all sports-related products like clothes and shoes used athletes to endorse their brands.
In 1998, it was estimated that companies in the US spent $800 million on acquiring celebrities for advertisements, promotions and PR campaigns. The total estimated endorsement commitments for 2004, for one company, Nike alone totaled $338.6 million. Multiple endorsements - both the company signing on several celebrities to promote a brand and one celebrity endorsing various brands, sometimes switching between competitors had become de rigueur. In 1999, one in five advertisements on TV featured a celebrity. In an AdAge study of the 20 most effective television ads of 2002, celebrities like Britney Spears featured in two-thirds of the ads.
In honour of National Bible Week in 1971, Sonny and Cher gave permission for the use of their image in an advertisement attempting to make the bible seem groovy. Using religion in a form of advertisement is something that has perhaps been seen less of over the years. Yet celebrity advertising reached the realm of religion too. It may not be inappropriate to mention here that in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII personally endorsed Vin Mariani (an alcoholic drink based on cocaine and wine), lending his face to the brand’s advertising campaign and even awarded it the Vatican gold medal.
Back to where we started, Josiah Wedgwood, the original pioneer of celebrity advertising had a lot to teach modern marketers. He has in fact many times been compared to Steve Jobs for his ability to successfully harness design, technology, advertising and creative showmanship to position his brand. Josiah opened his first workshop in Staffordshire in 1759. By the time of his death 36 years later, his wares were being sold worldwide and he had accumulated a fortune worth about £500 million in modern terms. Wedgwood’s prosperity did not derive primarily from his innovative and artistic products or his lean production system but his brilliant marketing strategy. Wedgwood relied on ‘fashionable appeal’ to push his brand. He ensured his products were hyped in the press and elaborately displayed in his posh London showrooms. He was the first to understand the value of celebrity endorsement, courting painters, architects and other fashion trendsetters of the day. One of his celebrated, in fact celebrity, customers was Queen Charlotte, for whom Wedgwood produced a tea set. Josiah capitalised on his status as "potter to Her Majesty" by marketing his Queen’s Ware range that helped extend his brand into the mass market while stimulating appeal for his more upmarket products. As a result, Wedgwood’s "brand equity" soared. He was regularly able to sell his products at double the average price, cementing his place as the creator of the first global luxury brand.
Not everyone though was enamored of celebrity advertising. Advertising guru, David Ogilvy wrote in ‘Ogilvy in Advertising’, “Testimonials by celebrities are below average in their ability to change brand preference. Viewers guess the celebrity has been bought, and they are right. Viewers have a way of remembering the celebrity while forgetting the product”. Not very kind words. But then Ogilvy was known not to mince words.
From sultry screen icons and rebellious rock stars to riveting reality stars and viral video vixens – the term ‘celebrity’ has rapidly evolved over the years, but the effect these figures have on the public has remained largely unchanged. Historically and presently, we view celebrities as influential, aspirational and most importantly, marketable. The power of the celebrity has always been the power to evoke ‘emulative’ action. The power to get the ordinary Johnny to believe that if it is good enough for the celebrity, it is good enough for him. That argument worked 250 years ago when Josiah Wedgwood created and marketed his pottery line for the Queen. It works equally well today.
(Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in celebrity advertising. He has done a lot of research over the years on how brands embraced and used celebrities to sell dreams.)
This is the final part of the four part series on 250 years of celebrity endorsements.