Another Super Bowl, another round of controversy. While past hubbubs were over Groupon ads and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”, this year’s honors go to Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” and M.I.A’s middle finger.
While AdAge says the spot is popular with viewers, critics question whether it was thinly veiled politics. Within days it inspired parody, and spokesman Clint Eastwood felt it necessary to clear the air about his intentions.
Studies have shown that using celebrities works, but as Gatorade and TAG Heuer learned, it can be like holding a Tiger (Woods) by its tail. Using celebrities have pros and cons to both the communicator and the celebrity.
When it Doesn’t Work
- Hypocrisy. Paula Deen never claimed to be the shining example of healthy cooking, so it wasn’t a surprise when she announced she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Deen went on to say she has no plans to change the way she eats. That is her choice, like someone who is diagnosed with COPD, but continues to smoke. Critics called her a hypocrite though when she announced she’d be the spokesperson for a campaign that promotes the diabetes drug Victoza. As a result, her publicist of six years resigned and she gave Anthony Bourdain fodder for continued criticism when he tweeted: “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”
- Embarrassment. Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Reebok launch a campaign (starting with Super Bowl ads) starring decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson asking “Who will be the world’s greatest athlete – Dan or Dave?” The campaign went bust when O’Brien failed to qualify for the Olympics by missing the pole vault during trials. Reebok modified the spots to feature Dan cheering Dave on, and Johnson won a bronze medal in Barcelona.
- Personal problems. There are so many examples of a celebrity’s personal life either undermining their credibility or making them an embarrassment to the brand. Eric Clapton admitted to battling alcoholism at the time he did a Michelob ad, James Garner underwent quadruple bypass surgery after doing ads for the The Beef Council, and of course there are athletes from Kobe Bryant to Michael Vick who lost endorsements for their behavior off the field.
When it Does Work
The celebrity sincerely cares. Tom Hanks is well known for Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. He’s also a member of the National Space Society, was awarded the Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award by the Space Foundation, was the national spokesperson for the World War II Memorial Campaign and the honorary chairperson of the D-Day Museum Capital Campaign.
- The celebrity has skin in the game. Regardless of your position on stem cell research, you can’t question Michael J. Fox for being an advocate for Parkinson’s disease research as someone who suffers from it through his foundation.
The Bottom Line
Celebrities can be effective messengers for causes and consumerism, if they and the communicators who use them know their limitations.
Jessica Simpson didn’t look like the brightest bulb in the bunch on her MTV show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica when she asked Nick “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken…by the Sea’.”
When Chicken of the Sea invited Simpson to the company’s sales conference (for an undisclosed amount), the story was picked up by close to 750 prime time affiliates, 10 national television shows, and 22 cable shows.
Brillant “win-win”. Simpson showed she could make fun of herself and the company’s PR firm estimated the event reached an audience of more than 38 million television viewers.