These headlines live on TMZ, but the mainstream news media are devoting significant airtime to the latest celebrity scandals too. Without a doubt, Americans are more celeb-obsessed than ever. The media attention surrounding Britney Spears' latest public meltdown while performing on MTV's Video Music Awards bears that out -- a quick Google news search shows more than 1,000 stories and counting, analyzing every aspect of the performance and what it means for her career. Even Chris Crocker's "Leave Britney Alone" video is getting attention from millions of YouTube visitors and hundreds of media outlets, which will no doubt fuel another round of media focus on Britney. Of course, Britney's sad fall from grace has made her persona non grata in the celebrity-endorsement world. I don't think we'll see her sporting another milk mustache anytime soon, and, at this point, is anybody really interested in smelling like Britney by wearing her perfume?
But Britney aside, all the media attention celebrities get makes it almost irresistible for marketers to jump on the celebrity bandwagon, wooing stars with multimillion-dollar paydays, freebies and even sponsorships of private parties.
I've done it many times myself. I've sent Snugli baby carriers to celebrity moms and jumped for joy when photos appeared in US Weekly. I've hired celebrities as spokespeople to do interviews on my clients' behalf -- sometimes addressing topics they don't really know too much about. I've booked celebrities on national talk shows, keeping my fingers crossed that producers would let the star mention my client's product by name, just one time, during the interview.
But as more celebrities have fallen from grace, I've begun to think that the cons outweigh the pros when it comes to working with celebrities. Not only do you run the risk that the star will get involved in an embarrassing scandal, there's also the bigger risk that the celebrity will overshadow the product.
A perfect example of that happened earlier this summer. MasterCard hired Nick Lachey to be the spokesperson for a public-relations effort to kick off its "Major League Dreams" promotion.
When he was hired, Lachey likely seemed a perfect fit -- he has all-American appeal, he's a big baseball fan, and he is a big enough star to get the attention of media outlets such as People and "Entertainment Tonight" that might otherwise not pay much attention to a MasterCard promotion.
Lost in the buzz
Unfortunately, nude photos of Lachey and his girlfriend, Vanessa Minnillo, surfaced about a week before the media-relations blitz was set to begin.
At first, Lachey was a good sport about answering questions about the photos. Things took a turn for the worse when Lachey sat down for a satellite-media tour.
A few interviews into the tour, Lachey was asked about the photos and, rather than give a brief answer and move on, he allegedly had the satellite-media-tour producer pull the plug on the interview. Of course, the tour company blamed "technical difficulties," but if they truly did lose the satellite connection naturally, the timing was pretty fortuitous for Lachey. The video made the rounds on YouTube and was talked about on gossip blogs such as PerezHilton and TMZ, along with entertainment news.
The point is that the MasterCard "Major League Dreams" promotion was completely lost in the buzz about Lachey, the nude photos and the aborted interview. And the new album he had coming out soon.
How much value did they really gain from enlisting him as a spokesperson? Not much. His participation overshadowed the brand and promotion.
Especially for less-established brands, the downside of aligning too closely with a star can be huge. Sure, a brand such as Nike can weather the Michael Vick dog-fighting media storm and come out unscathed: Nike has a roster of celebrity endorsers and has established its own legitimacy. But Trimspa, which built its entire marketing effort around Anna Nicole Smith, for example, has had to completely rethink everything -- and may never recover.
Increasingly, trying to get my clients' products to bask in the glow of a celebrity's "borrowed cool" feels, frankly, a little bit lazy. With a celebrity seal of approval, you don't have to take the time to craft a real story about a product or even ensure that it lives up to its promise. And there seems to be an "any celebrity is a good celebrity" mentality, particularly when you see something like Louis Vuitton featuring Mikhail Gorbachev in an ad in Vogue. He helped end communism in the old Soviet Union, but will he make somebody want to buy a luxury tote?
The better approach? Go back to basics. Hire real, credible experts to be spokespeople. And let the product be the star.
Cathy Yingling is Managing Director of Y&L PR, a division of Young & Laramore. She has created award-winning brand action programs for brands including American Airlines, Kenmore and Whirlpool appliances, and Burger King.