UK: SELLING POINTS - REACH FOR THE STARS. - Hiring a megastar to endorse a product is often fraught with difficulties, says Alan Mitchell. But top companies persist with personality advertising because rewards can be huge.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Hiring a megastar to endorse a product is often fraught with difficulties, says Alan Mitchell. But top companies persist with personality advertising because rewards can be huge.

Pity poor Nike. In the build-up to Euro '96, it ran a powerful advertising campaign featuring Newcastle United team-mates Les Ferdinand and David Ginola facing each other in showdown mode in front of their national flags (English and French respectively). The slogan read 'Friendship expires 6/96'. It was great attention-grabbing advertising which cleverly associated Nike with the sport's surging emotions. There was only one problem - neither player made the national team during the tournament.

Nike's marketers haven't always had such bad luck. The brand wouldn't be the global icon it is today without the endorsement of celebrity sportsmen like US basketball superstar Michael Jordan and Eric Cantona in the UK. 'Celebrities bring celebrity,' notes Seamus O'Farrell, a board director at Abbott Mead Vickers, the agency that has used celebrities to good effect for clients such as BT and Sainsbury.

A celebrity halo is only one of the things marketers seek when they deploy personalities and stars to advertise their brands. Hopefully, the star can also be used to represent what the brand stands for. When Walkers marketers hit upon an advertising strategy based on the theme that Walkers crisps are 'so nice that the nicest people would nick them', Gary Lineker - 'Mr Nice' - became an obvious choice as brand rep. With Lineker, 'you get the point very quickly,' says Walkers marketing director Martin Glenn.

Other personalities can also be used for their adaptability. Bob Hoskins is used by BT to unify ads promoting a vast range of different products and services. 'He brings synergy,' explains O'Farrell.

Personality advertising can work a treat. Before Glenn signed up Lineker, unprompted awareness of Walkers' ads bobbed around 40%. Post-Lineker, unprompted awareness never falls below 60%. If the ads are on air, prompted awareness rises to 96%. The acid test, however, is sales.

And ever since Lineker started stealing packets of crisps from little boys, they've soared. Says Glenn: 'I've never been involved in any advertising that has worked so well.'

Walkers may be happy, but celebrity endorsements have their drawbacks.

Firstly there is a question of cost - stars can be very expensive. Nike's deal with Cantona costs it £250,000 a year. This is small change relative to Michael Jordan - his fee is $20 million per annum. There's also no guarantee the investment will generate the right sort of publicity. Sex, drugs, violence, blasphemy, you name it and advertising personalities have indulged in it. Madonna scored a double-whammy for Pepsi-Co when, as a recently signed star, she issued her Like a Prayer video showing her making love to a black Christ. Her replacement, Michael Jackson, 'the world's purest superstar,' trumped her by drawing damaging allegations of child abuse. Cantona, for his part, achieved great notoriety after delivering a few well-aimed blows at a football fan.

Even when they are well-behaved, stars are not always appropriate for the brands they endorse. Harry Enfield's ads for Mercury were loved by consumers but left its most valuable corporate customers wondering what the brand had to offer them. And sometimes they do so many ads the public gets confused. Most prolific so far is John Cleese who has represented Sainsbury, Compaq, Cellnet, and Norwich Union among many others.

The so-called 'vampire effect' can also sap a campaign's vitality when, instead of the personality promoting the brand, the brand ends up promoting the personality. Who can forget when Leonard Rossiter teamed up with Joan Collins for their hilarious series of drink commercials? But who can remember the name of the drink? Was it Cinzano? Or Martini? Everyone associated Maureen Lipman's Beattie with BT. But they watched for her, not BT's message.

The risks of celebrity endorsement may be exaggerated. It's simply bad advertising if consumers fail to remember the brand. And when stars are naughty, consumers understand the score and don't blame their brand sponsors, argues Johnson. If personality advertising does backfire badly, self-ridicule is one answer. Nike's advertising agency bravely made fun of its earlier mistakes during Euro '96 by taking out press ads to play up the Nike 'curse'.

'Good luck Germany,' they declared. And then, they added in brackets, 'that should do it'. But, as Gareth Southgate knows only too well, even that didn't work.

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