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Advertisers and their ad agencies have long believed that employing a well-known performer or public figure to promote their products or services gives them credibility and allure, helping to distinguish them from the competition.

The choice of a presenter to represent a brand or product involves many considerations. Although the final choice must lend itself to rational justification in terms of the presenter supporting the positioning of the product, as often as not the selection hinges to some extent on personal taste.

Once a choice has been made, the agency approaches the personality through a talent agency, personal agent or business manager to begin negotiating terms. There are companies in advertising to assist agencies in making such contacts. Once such a consulting company becomes involved in a negotiation, the agency will pay the presenter through the consultant, which will take an agreed-upon commission before transferring the money to the presenter.

Hiring the famous

The costs of retaining a famous presenter depend on many factors. The more unique the qualities of the presenter and the more appropriate to the brand, the higher the fee, since the actor knows that the campaign may depend on his or her participation. In other cases, when any number of actors might meet the requirement, the bargaining power of the individual diminishes. Also, the longer the campaign is to run, the greater the commitment of the presenter to the brand. The duration of the use period is spelled out in the contract, usually with options to renew.

In 1950, Betty Furness, a former stage actress trying to break into TV, began appearing in commercials for Westinghouse refrigerators and appliances, beginning a relationship that would last 11 years and make her one of the best-known personalities of early commercial TV.

Some campaigns require very little of a star, because the individual is secondary to the concept. In the 1970s, Ogilvy & Mather developed a campaign for the American Express credit card that suggested the product could give any cardholder instant standing, even though he or she might not be known in a restaurant or store.

It used a series of presenters with famous names but not necessarily famous faces, who asked, "Do you know me?" The agency was able to get such figures as author James Michener and bandleader Benny Goodman to make appearances, each for a flat fee of $20,000; ultimately, it became a source of prestige to be asked to participate in the campaign.

The physical presence of the presenter in a commercial creates a warmer, more confident feeling on the part of the consumer than if the presenter appears only as a voice, heard but unseen. These pitches are very different from personal endorsements, in which the presenter attaches a personal testimony.

While ad campaigns often use celebrities, marketers have found that presenters need not be recognizable personalities to enhance a brand's performance. Successful unknown presenters have included Maytag's fictitious lonely repairman; the characters Fred Bartles and Ed Jaymes, who pitched E. & J. Gallo's Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers; and the anonymous fast-talking Federal Express guy from the 1980s. In general, however, presenters, who are surrogates for the advertiser, have been show business personalities or high-profile athletes who bring a human face to a corporate image and who are well compensated for their time.

Even chief executives occasionally step into the limelight as spokesmen for their brands. Among the better known and more effective was Lee Iacocca, chief executive officer of Chrysler Corp. With Chrysler battling a wave of Japanese imports and nearing bankruptcy in the 1980s, Mr. Iacocca made a charismatic, personal appeal in TV spots, resulting in a congressional bailout of the automaker and a rise in car sales.

Two highly publicized commercials Michael Jackson made for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Pepsi were the forerunners of the big-budget celebrity ads that dominated much advertising during the 1980s and '90s. Pepsi paid $5 million for the rights to Mr. Jackson's image and $2 million to produce the spots, handled by BBDO Worldwide, New York.

A product often requires a specific personality to make the advertising work. For example, 1940s film star June Allyson added just the right spirit and gracefully aging celebrity needed to sell Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s Depend incontinence products.

Presenter drawbacks

The use of presenters can backfire, however, if the celebrity becomes enmeshed in questionable, disgraceful or even illegal activities. Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of professional athlete-turned-actor O.J. Simpson, onetime spokesman for Hertz Corp. In 1984, consumer researcher Video Storyboard Tests rated Mr. Simpson the most popular athlete-turned-spokesperson. But when he was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in 1994, becoming the defendant in a highly publicized criminal trial, public perception of him altered radically and his value as a spokesperson was destroyed.

Such gaffes have not been limited to athletes. Actress Cybill Shepherd was spokeswoman for the beef industry until she revealed that she did not eat meat.

In some cases, personalities have overshadowed the products or services they were presenting and were dismissed as a result. In the early 1980s, actor-producer Orson Welles was fired by Vintners International after he made the line "We will sell no wine before its time" more famous as his own than that of the product.

Memorable celebrities

The best presenters over the years have also been the most memorable. Joe Di Maggio was hugely successful representing Dime Bank and Mr. Coffee. Actors James Garner and Mariette Hartley created a series of ads for Polaroid Corp. featuring breezy, humorous exchanges. Polaroid and its agency Doyle Dane Bernbach signed the duo for five years in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Perhaps the single most popular presenter of the modern TV era has been comedian Bill Cosby, who has promoted everything from Jell-O to cameras to Coca-Cola to insurance. The only person ever to beat Mr. Cosby during his 14-year reign over the ad industry's public approval index was the Pope.

Serving as a spokesperson has, at times, proven to be tricky business because the role can be so easily confused with product or service endorsements, leading to a situation in which the spokesperson becomes liable for false claims.

Singer Pat Boone, for example, came under legal scrutiny for his endorsement of the acne product Acne-Statin in 1978. Mr. Boone finally agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that held him personally accountable, which became the forerunner for new endorsement standards.

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