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At Least Elvis Can't Get Caught Smoking Pot

Skittish Marketers Turn to Safe Celebrity Endorsers in Lieu of Hot Young Stars

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The rise in botched endorsement deals with the likes of Michael Phelps and Chris Brown has marketers rethinking recruiting young, megawatt stars as brand ambassadors, celeb watchers said today at a gathering of top advertisers.

Deceased celebrity icons are surprising popular with marketers because they have stood the test of time and often continue to resonate well with consumers.
Deceased celebrity icons are surprising popular with marketers because they have stood the test of time and often continue to resonate well with consumers. Credit: AP
Only 7% of the ads that aired during this year's Grammy Awards featured celebrities, down from 13% in 2008 and 25% in 2007, said David Reeder, VP at Greenlight Rights, a Los Angeles firm that conducts clearances for corporations' ad campaigns. He made his comments during a panel discussion at the 2009 ANA Advertising Law and Business Affairs Conference in New York.

One way to hedge your bets: Make a deceased celebrity the face of your brand. They are (for obvious reasons) far less likely to ignite media firestorms with callous behavior. "All the scandal is behind them; [there are] no more surprises to be had," Mr. Reeder said. "You're not going to catch Elvis in a sex scandal, or Albert Einstein's not going to hit his girlfriend."

Such icons are surprising popular with marketers because they have stood the test of time and often continue to resonate well with consumers, Mr. Reeder said. The estate of Elvis Presley raked in an estimated $51 million last year, beating out current pop idol Justin Timberlake, who took in almost $45 million in 2008, Mr. Reeder said. Across the pond, U.K.-based marketers are known to regularly seek out Winston Churchill for their brands.

Estates can be highly protective of usage rights, but it's worth a try; they can be surprisingly receptive to such deals. Mr. Reeder personally negotiated a deal with John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, to use the musician in a campaign for Eurostar trains.

Tried-and-true A-listers
Those that use contemporary celebrities to hawk their products are increasingly turning to a handful of tried-and-true A-listers such as George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. They are considered safer because their youthful indiscretions are behind them, and they are generally good citizens. The downside is that such stars can be expensive, sometimes commanding eight figures for multiyear deals.

Those who can afford -- and stomach the egos -- of A-listers and popular young celebs must make sure they have ironclad contracts.

"You really have to negotiate hard on the moral-clause issue," said Sheryll Kollin, senior VP-director of broadcast at Southfield, Mich.-based ad agency Doner. These days, it's more important than ever to be specific about contract language to give marketers and agencies the option to walk away if things go wrong, she said.

It works both ways, though. Particularly in the current business climate, celebrities are growing wary of the reputational risks companies can pose, Ms. Kollin said. Some have begun asking for a "mutual morals clause" in their contracts, to protect themselves in case a company engages in questionable behavior.

Here are five helpful tips for marketers and agencies structuring celebrity deals:
  1. Make sure the star is aligned with your brand and will be a believable booster of it. Check his or her affiliations and charities. Research the star's record in representing other brands.
  2. Always ask questions. Be frank during the negotiation process, and don't be afraid to question an agent about how much power he or she really has in the process.
  3. Know who the decision makers are. Celebrities have any number of handlers, from agents to attorneys and publicists.
  4. Understand your budget, and manage expectations. Negotiate an allowance for "glam squads" or makeup artists and others in the celebrity's entourage so that costs don't go sky-high. Multiyear contracts often offer some discount too.
  5. Stroking the ego can go a long way. Living and breathing the letter of the law and constantly going back to the contract isn't advisable either.
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