Celebs in ads aren’t a waste of money whatever Ace Metrix says, it’s the who and how that counts

Research outfit Ace Metrix is enjoying its moment in the sun thanks to a study originally publicised in Ad age that purports to show that celebrities, particularly Tiger Woods, are a waste of advertisers’ time and money.

Like all good PR coups this is a combination of an attention-grabbing proposition that happens to be something your target market, journalists, also want to endorse. Journalists absolutely hate celebs because they spend so much time licking their boots. So any evidence that these people are wasters is a heaven-sent opportunity to get their own back.

But marketers and ad agencies aren’t completely stupid despite frequent evidence to the contrary.

They know perfectly well that celebs give you cut-through (help you stand out from the crowd), that lots of impressionable people will do what they recommend in case some of their glory and sex appeal washes off on them and that they can be used in all sorts of other marketing activities – like a round with Tiger for key clients if said supplier is worth the money.

Where today’s marketers and agencies get it completely wrong is in not controlling their celebs, not putting them into promotional contexts where it’s hard for them to do damage.

The best agency at using celebs was the UK’s Collett Dickenson Pearce, in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s the most creative agency in the world.

CDP, under boss Frank Lowe, who was really a Hollywood mogul in disguise, used to cherry pick celebrities to appear in its ads, often getting them to agree to make complete prats of themselves.

But it was always, firmly, a case of horses for courses. So Frank persuaded David Bailey to front up for Olympus cameras and made sure that David looked cool. But there was no point in making him look anything else, that’s what Bailey was (as well as being an expert photographer of course).

For Parker Pens it signed up Penelope Keith, still to be seen on British telly but at the time playing a snobby middle class parvenu called Margot in a popular BBC show The Good Life. So Keith played a variation on Margot for CDP and Parker Pens very successfully.

It wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Keith had subsequently been discovered enjoying intimate relations with the entire Oxford and Cambridge boat crews (she wasn’t of course). She was signed up to play a variation on her Good Life character and that was it.

So CDP was in charge and the celebs it worked with were well aware of it. The ads were great too of course, which obviously helped.

But these days it’s all a bit different. Celebs are such big business and surrounded by so many brigades of lawyers, PR folk, minders and assorted yes-men that all most advertisers and agencies can do is buy a piece of them. So they don’t have control.

They then compound this problem by kidding themselves that anyone (male or female) who can command such an expensive retinue is the kind of person who embodies in their own doings and can express in whatever stunts they’re required to perform the homely, respectable virtues which most brands like to embody.

When in reality they’re probably nasty, venal, spoilt and sex, drug or alcohol crazed (or possibly all three). Just what the client would probably be if he or she had the money.

So we have one-time ace golfer Tiger Woods losing all of his sponsorship deals (apart from Nike) and English footballer Wayne Rooney losing all of his sponsorship deals (apart from Nike) because of their sexual indiscretions.

But if the agencies in question had done their homework (or acted on it, adland is rife with hair-raising stories about celebs) they would have produced vehicles that didn’t depend on the celeb in question acting like St Francis of Assisi in their private life.

Unlike this load of old rubbish from BBDO featuring Tiger, Roger Federer and Thierry Henry.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.