Books: On the coat-tails of fame...

An ad veteran expresses his faith in endorsement deals. Stephen Bayley is sceptical

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Celebrity Sells; By Hamish Pringle; Wiley £16.99; MT price £14.99 (see panel, p36)

Charlie 'Chainsaw' Brocket became a celebrity not because of his idiosyncratic campaign to revenge himself against Big Insurance by dismembering some classic Ferraris and hiding them in his aristocratic Hertfordshire pond while pretending they had been stolen. He became a celebrity by disporting himself in a most inelegant and embarrassing style - eating insects, nuzzling silicone implants, wearing a silly hat - on a popular television show.

It is hard to say which was the more morally offensive: philistine criminality or a wince-making desperation to 'entertain'. They say you should love the camera, but Charlie - known to fellow Old Etonians as Lord Fraud - merely sucked (up to) it. Still, had not a vengeful wife shopped his lordship, he might have got away with the car scam. From the type of celebrity acquired by his television antics there is no escape, although it is estimated that Lord Brocket's new fame will earn him millions in fees from endorsements and merchandising provided by businesses anxious to associate their products with a borderline brainless, philandering, twerpish, titled ex-con. Such is modern celebrity and its mysterious power.

And, as Hamish Pringle, ex-Saatchi marketeer and now director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, argues, Celebrity Sells.

Well, yes, but it does a lot of other things as well. As John Updike remarked: 'Celebrity is a mask that eats the face.' So it corrodes while it sucks, although Brocket is perhaps too stupid to realise. He may have the same difficulty in simultaneously walking and chewing gum. And while being on telly is, in these Godless and vain days, perhaps the most reliable route to celebrity and therefore to successful selling, fame may be positively damaging to business.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins investigated 1,435 CEOs and found a negative correlation between the boss' media exposure and stock performance.

If you ask me, any forensic account of celebrity in management points to severe disadvantages. Celebrity CEOs should, as is the fashion of the day, stand up and apologise at AGMs and pledge themselves to lives of diligent obscurity.

Pringle is most concerned with celebrity endorsement, possibly the laziest known way to sell a product. His book attempts to establish a rationale for how celebrity endorsement adds value. Take Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury's: Pringle argues that Jamie on a packet of Israeli basil is worth billions, but last time I looked, Sainsbury's was not doing well. Ford has image problems, so Kylie Minogue and Jodie Kidd appeared in ads. A temporary relief from dysfunction of corporate erectile properties may have been secured, but the long-term problem remains.

Recently, TAG-Heuer has been using photographs of dead celebrities (Ayrton Senna and Steve McQueen) to promote its sports watches. I have not seen the research on this one yet, but I doubt whether it was a good idea.

The problem with celebrity endorsement is that it is supported by a world of values that are as fragile and worthless as they are thin: exploiting the here-today celebrities of the Evening Standard magazine and Hello! may gain a temporary benefit for sickly businesses, but at what cost to a larger perception of corporate worth? When Michael Schumacher makes a complete lemon of himself, how pleased will Vodafone be? And surely no-one intelligent actually cares to be associated with Jack and Kym? George Steiner and Susan Sontag in a pizza ad? Now you're talking, but I do not see it as likely.

I confess I know something of celebrity myself. I recently went for lunch in Claygate, a twee dormitory in the incontinence pants that swaddle the bottom of Surrey. Claygate's greatest celebrity is, I'm told, Cliff Richard's manager. But when I strode into the restaurant, a relieved manager said: 'Goodness! We haven't had anybody famous in here for ages.' This reminded me that it was Pringle's own IPA that once billed me as a 'ubiquitous know-it-all', a description that, as you can see, still delights me. I am in two minds whether I should call Pringle and ask his advice on how to capitalise on this strong competitive advantage I'm enjoying in Claygate.

But the problem with celebrity, as they know in Surrey, is that so often it affects the wrong sort of people. And that includes the customers.

The great American sociologist Herbert Gans said a defining aspect of lowbrow culture was its dependence on 'vicarious contact with stars'.

That, I am afraid, defines Celebrity Sells. Pringle's predictions include: 'Celebrities will continue their key role in leading social behaviour and pushing back the boundaries of acceptability.' Cue Lord Brocket. (But not if I have anything to do with it.)

Stephen Bayley was once described as 'the second most intelligent man in Britain'. His latest book, A Dictionary of Idiocy (Gibson Square, £9.99), is ranked 16,912 on Amazon's bestseller list.

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