Most of us would tend to believe that celebrity advertising is a very recent phenomenon. May be a 100 years old? Maybe 150? It would therefore be surprising to know that celebrity advertising is actually more than 250 years old.
First known history of celebrity advertising globally dates back to the 1760s, when royal endorsements were used as a type of celebrity branding to promote products. The first product that used celebrity endorsements way back in 1760 (some records say it was 1768) was Wedgwood of UK, producers of hi-quality pottery and chinaware. Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the Wedgwood brand, also called the father of the modern brand as we know it, used royal endorsements as a marketing device to show value in the company and promote its products.
For the next century, royal endorsement and endorsements by ‘august houses’ and ‘houses of repute’ remained the most visible form of celebrity advertising. ‘By Appointment to HRH …’ so to say became the differentiator between the prosaic, the plebian and the premium. Brands, as well as their retail outlets, would proudly proclaim the royal association and try to milk it for maximal mileage and value. From porcelain to food to clothing and outfitters, the useage of the royal emblem imparted a touch of class to the product and brand.
In the period 1875 to1900s, ‘trade cards’ were introduced as precursors to modern day advertising. In these trade cards, there would be a picture of a celebrity accompanied by a photo of the product. Typically, these trade cards would be given to consumers with the product or would be inserted in the packaging of the product itself, which would feature celebrities such as actors or sport stars. Initial trade cards featured actresses like Lily Langtry (for Pears soap) and Sarah Bernhardt, and baseball players like Cy Young, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. In fact Cy Young was featured in one of the first ‘co-branding’ advertising campaigns ever when he was used to endorse a product very similar to the George Foreman Grill which carried his name and style as part of the product’s branding. It would take George Foreman a 100 years to follow his example.
Author Mark Twain (1835-1910), who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was famous enough, and credible enough, to feature in the endorsement campaigns of three brands concurrently: Great Mark Cigars, Mark Twain Cigars and Mark Twain flour! Legend has it that Twain was so much in demand as a celebrity endorser that he also became the brand ambassador for Old Crow Whisky and was even hired to chip in to promote the newly introduced railroads in the country. There is evidence to show that the prolific Mark Twain appeared in an ad, and endorsed, Fountain Pens. It was then a new category, and Twain’s endorsement as a writer of repute gave the writing instruments the necessary gravitas. He also got to put his name and face to a line of shaving accessories and a brand of clothing. So, Twain was perhaps the first of celebrity endorsers to take on multiple brand ambassadorships. And by the way, the railroads needed serious advertising support in those days. Pennsylvania Railroad roped in the famous Roy Rogers to explain that you could enjoy Siesta Time, Fiesta Time and Beddin’ Down time on the railroad, and enjoy a pleasurable journey in the process.
Cigarette brands were the original pioneers of celebrity branding. By the early 1900s, as silent films, radio, and vaudeville came on the scene in addition to newspapers, advertisers started to pick famous comedians like Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Bulger. Murad Cigarettes used both of them in its advertising campaigns as early as the year 1905. Later cigarette brand endorsers included Henry Fonda, Jack Benny, Ethel Barrymore and Fred Astaire. Over time, celebrity ads started to look and say things which are very close to what endorsees communicate today for brands. Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor, who went on to become the President of the United States of America featured in a well remembered campaign, “I’M SENDING CHESTERFIELDS to all my friends. That’s the merriest Christmas any smoker can have – Chesterfield mildness plus no unpleasant after-taste”. Rock Hudson plugged in with, “I’ve tried ’em all … but it’s Camels for me!”. The incredibly beautiful and stylish Marlene Dietrich became famous with her legendary line, “I smoke a smooth cigarette – Lucky Strike!”. Reagan, just for the record, was a non-smoker but remained a major champion of the smoking lobby in his Hollywood years.