Paul Marcarelli and Jonathan Goldsmith are not household names. But their respective catchphrases -- "Can You Hear Me Now?" and "Stay Thirsty, My Friends" -- are instantly recognizable and helped propel the brands they represented throughout much of the 2000s, Verizon and Dos Equis. This year the two men began leveraging their unlikely stardom on behalf of two new brands -- Mr. Marcarelli for Sprint and Mr. Goldsmith for an upstart home Wi-Fi brand called Luma.
The men are not celebrities in the traditional sense. They are ad actors who are deploying the equity built up via their former campaigns on behalf of their new employers. Luma and Sprint have smartly tapped into this equity. But is there anything Verizon or Dos Equis can do to stop them if they wanted? Not really. While advertisers own the rights to characters they create -- like the Most Interesting Man in the case of Dos Equis -- there is usually nothing stopping actors from referencing their past roles, according to experts.
"From a legal perspective, the advertiser owns the character that they create. If the actor performs in character, then that would be infringing the rights of the advertiser," said Douglas Wood, senior partner at Reed Smith and general counsel to the Association of National Advertisers. But in Mr. Goldsmith's case, he doesn't play the Most Interesting Man role. "He references it, which you are perfectly free to do," Mr. Wood said. "He obviously owns his own persona and can capitalize on what he once was."
The ad -- which Ad Age reported on in early December -- shows Mr. Goldsmith appearing as himself, pitching Luma's Wi-Fi as a better option than "weak-ass Wi-Fi." He vaguely alludes to his Dos Equis role, telling viewers, "yeah, it's me, the guy from those ads you liked a lot. It turns out I'm a real person."
In a blog post promoting the spot's debut, Luma more aggressively linked Mr. Goldsmith back to his old role, stating: "The world has come to know and love this guy for the most amazing and interesting adventures in the world. Then he got sent to Mars…He hasn't told us how (yet), but Jonathan heard that his fans missed him and now he has returned!" The Mars line is a reference to Mr. Goldsmith's final Dos Equis ad, in which he was sent on a one-way trip to the planet.
Mr. Marcarelli's appearance for Sprint is quite different -- because he is directly taking on a competitor, Verizon, for whom he once regularly touted in ads. Mr. Marcarelli was Verizon's spokesman for nearly a decade, but he played a character, known as "Test Man" and the marketer mostly kept his identity a mystery. In the Sprint campaign, which debuted in June, Mr. Marcarelli appears as himself. In the first spot, called "Paul Switched," he reintroduced himself as Paul. "I used to ask if you could hear me now with Verizon -- not anymore," he said in the spot. He then touted Sprint's network reliability saying it's "now within 1% of Verizon," while ending the spot saying, "Can you hear that?"
The language and references to his old employer are more hard-hitting than Mr. Goldsmith's references to his old gig. But because the Verizon/Sprint references deal with head-to-head competition "you can do more in that area because the laws give more leeway in pure competition situations," Mr. Wood said.
A Verizon spokeswoman did not reply to an email inquiry about Mr. Marcarelli's new role. When Mr. Goldsmith's Luma ad broke in early December, a spokesman for Dos Equis-owner Heineken USA told Ad Age that "Jonathan was a memorable part of our efforts in making Dos Equis one of the most popular beers in America. We wish him the best in of all his future endeavors."
Marketers typically negotiate exclusivity arrangements while actors are still actively promoting their brand. David Schwab, founder of Octagon First Call, which consults with brands on celebrity usage, said exclusivity deals usually fall into several buckets: Brands can ensure their star does not appear for other brands in their category, and even prohibit their talent from appearing for another brand outside of its category but sold at the same retailer. For instance, if a soda brand had a heavy Wal-Mart-themed campaign, they might want to make sure their star does not prominently appear for another brand sold at Walmart, like dishware. Because it "diminishes the value," Mr. Schwab said.
Brands can also negotiate "thematic" exclusivities, he said. So "if you are doing a Most Interesting Man, I would assume that in the contract it said, 'While under agreement with us you cannot do anything that is a Most Interesting Man type of thematic,'" he said.
Of course, actors will likely seek more compensation in return for the restrictions. But in some cases, it might be worth it -- especially when an actor is indelibly linked to a brand in a long-running and successful campaign.
One example is Stephanie Courtney, who since 2008 has played the Flo character for Progressive. While Progressive declined to disclose the terms of Ms. Courtney's deal, a spokesman confirmed that she "has not appeared in an ad with another brand since she was in an air freshener ad in 2008, also the first year our 'Superstore' ads debuted."
But once an actor and brand part ways, it is pretty rare for them to be locked into post-term restrictions for a lengthy period. "Even the most aggressive restrictive covenant you would typically see in a talent contract might be a year after termination or something like that. I've never seen one longer," Mr. Wood said.
Sprint's steal of Mr. Marcarelli is looking pretty smart. The campaign has generated more than 3 billion impressions, including TV, print, digital and social media, said Sprint spokesman Dave Tovar. "That's by far the largest campaign we've done in years," he said.
Mr. Goldsmith's Luma digital campaign has a much smaller budget. It got "just a bit" of paid support, including on Facebook and Twitter, said Luma co-founder Paul Judge. But because the brand tapped a well-known commercial star, the debut spot generated more free publicity than it otherwise would have. Outlets covering the ad included Ad Age, Forbes and Mashable. Luma plans to expand the effort in 2017, adding TV spots, Mr. Judge said.
It took a bit of luck to get the partnership started. "A couple years ago I bumped into him at an event, and just kind of had a conversation with him," Mr. Judge recalled. "Life went on and we started building Luma," he added. Then "we saw one day that he was going to Mars and retiring," he said, referring to Mr. Goldsmith's final Dos Equis spot that ran earlier this year. "We had the idea and reached out and had some conversation and he got to know more about Luma … and so we partnered."
Asked if he's had conversations with anyone at Mr. Goldsmith's old employer, Heineken USA, Mr. Judge quipped that "I had a Dos Equis beer last week -- but I really didn't talk to anyone at the company."