Katie Edmondson
Katie Edmondson
Assistant Editor

Why Celebrity Ads Fail

According to a new infographic from Crowdtap, “consumers trust recommendations from peers over all other forms of advertising.”

That’s right. Earned media—a suggestion from his neighbor, his college buddy or even his dentist’s cousin—will influence Mr. Consumer more than  a high-budget television, print or online banner ad. This is echoed by another recent study, this one by Nielsen, which also found that consumers trust online opinions (read: those of complete strangers) more than they trust any other form of editorial content, ads or sponsorships (and second only to recommendations from people they know). The full results below:

This new insight has huge implications for advertisers and their outdated insistence that relying solely on traditional media and trusted gimmicks will produce results. One trick in particular, the celebrity endorsement, will come under fire as a result of these new findings. Our take? Celebrities belong in the world of advertising only when they are integral to a brand’s story.

A Storied Past

For decades the faces, bodies and personalities of celebrities have brought brand advertising to life and inserted simple products into the national conversation. Celebrity TV spots have always been prime fodder for watercooler conversation. But in the Post-Advertising age—an age of crowdsourcing and democratic engagement across social platforms—do celebrities really affect a consumer’s drive to purchase?

The celebrity is a unique breed of human that walks a fine line between relatable peer and soulless object. He or she is not quite friend, not quite stranger. We idolize actresses and athletes as gods but also feel that we somehow know them, because we’ve seen their faces on screens and read their opinions in magazines. This stand-out quality gives them a unique place in our culture, and advertisers have long capitalized on their celebrity status to sell products. This once successful method breaks down in the Post-Advertising age, however.

A 2010 study from Ace Metrix featured in Advertising Age found that “celebrity ads performed either below average or merely equaled it.” Many consumers cited “confusion” about what product the celebrity was endorsing and “dislike of the celebrity” as major reasons for distrusting ads. A famous face does not a successful campaign make. In fact, the celebrity can often distract from the product’s merits and lead consumers away from the brand’s identity. Unless the celebrity’s image and personality fit perfectly with the brand’s core story, our famous friend has no role in this particular stall in the consumer marketplace.

Does Celebrity = Sales?

Beyond the often artificial and ill-fitting placement of celebrities in ads, there is the question of whether a buzzed-about commercial actually drives sales. Ad Age’s Peter Daboll remarks, “Just because an ad is incredibly popular, funny and/or viral, that doesn’t mean it is effective with consumers.” Recently, brands have been preoccupied with videos that go viral. They often believe that a popular video on the Internet will spread the word about their product in a positive way, and that a celebrity endorsement will add notoriety and an SEO boost to the campaign. But using a celebrity simply as a drive to viewership will fail to communicate the true meaning and value of a product. When a brand wants to tell a story, it must think about its core identity and the true value of its products and services. Too often the celebrity comes into the mix as an afterthought—a figure that does not fit squarely within the brand’s story.

Complicating matters further is the issue of authenticity. As a skeptical consumer, I find it hard to believe that celebrities actually use in their daily lives the products they hawk. Case in point: the huge stars in Burger King’s recent ads. Am I really supposed to buy that David Beckham, Salma Hayek and Steven Tyler eat at Burger King? Maybe not, but I still find it disconcerting that a powerful chain would put so much stock in a few celebrities when its brand story has the potential to be so much more than a cheap gag.

There are countless examples of empty spokespeople that appear for one or two commercials and then disappear when their contracts end. Once a brand puts a celebrity in a commercial, they become a part of the brand—forever associated with its identity, for better or for worse. Choosing a celebrity for the wrong reasons will lead to public embarrassment and a notable stain on the brand’s image. Which would you rather be remembered for: an ad that communicates your brand’s story in a meaningful and productive way or a silly viral video featuring Betty White and Jon Bon Jovi dueling over a pit of fire?

Tell us: Which celebrity advertisement sticks out as the worst example of brand storytelling? Do you believe that celebrity advertising still works in the Post-Advertising age?

(Image: Burger King/YouTube)