Fast-forward a decade to where it takes technology to make a Nike spokesman stand out-Michael Jordan leaping across a basketball court with Bugs Bunny himself.
Long before Calvin Klein's obsession with sex and Nike's love affair with flashy athletes and special effects, celebrity sponsorship was rather mundane, involving little more than celebrities pointing to products.
In the 1950s, it was Nancy Reagan who flashed her pearly whites for Crest toothpaste, while her husband Ronald Reagan and numerous other Hollywood stars hawked cigarettes. In the '60s, actor Edward G. Robinson endorsed Maxwell House coffee.
In the '70s, images of Bill Cosby eating Jell-O with a group of giggling kids was standard fare, as was O.J. dashing through airports as Hertz's pitchman.
The evolution of sponsorship roles not only has to do with the increased glamor celebrities are thought to give products, but also with advertisers' goals, which have changed over the years.
Early on, celebrities were used mainly to give credibility to the new medium of TV. Later, as Michael Keel, VP-advertising and merchandising at Magnavox, points out, "Companies hired celebrities .*.*. for recognition."
In the last 20 years, and especially today, mere fame isn't enough; advertisers want celebrities who fit with their products.
"We never choose celebrities just because they're hot," says Mr. Keel. "They have to be appropriate for the positioning of the product as well as likable, persuasive, memorable and appealing to all age groups. The ideal is Michael Jordan; every time he throws a ball in the air, people think of Nike."
The Smothers Brothers duo was considered appropriate when Magnavox changed its positioning to "Smart. Very Smart" in the late 1980s. "Tommy was the everyman; Dick was the smart one," notes Mr. Keel.
Similarly, when the brothers' contract expired in 1990, they were replaced by English actor John Cleese, whose sophisticated humor was seen as a good match for the brand's new-product launches.
As with Mr. Cleese, credibility is most easily transferred from a star's on-screen persona, says Daisy Sinclair, a casting agent at Ogilvy & Mather, New York. For example, Karl Malden was chosen as the American Express presenter for traveler's cheques because his "Streets of San Francisco" TV role was directly related to the product's crime message.
Bruce Willis, basking in his "Moonlighting" TV series' popularity in 1986, was the young, flip personality Seagram's felt it needed for its wine cooler to target twentysomething consumers.
The same applied to Ali MacGraw, whose "Love Story" success and youthful image earned her the presenter's role for Polaroid's Swinger line in the '70s, though the company's more notable presenters were James Garner and Mariette Hartley, who pitched the brand from the late '70s to the early '80s.
The Garner/Hartley pairing was made "for their relevance, both in terms of the product and what was happening in the country," says Joanna Hughes Brach, director of marketing communications at Polaroid. "James was a popular, up-and-coming actor at the same time Polaroid was introducing several new products; Mariette was a strong counterpart who represented the rise of feminism."
One of the most successful matchups in recent years is Sprint and actress Candice Bergen, who has filmed more than 75 spots since 1990 and who, the company claims, is directly responsible for Sprint's increased market share.
"Sprint wanted to distinguish itself from AT&T and MCI as the smart, feisty and irreverent competitor," says David Riemer, VP-group account director at J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco. "And Candice [as the star of CBS' "Murphy Brown"] represented that personality."
"The mistake that some advertisers make is borrowing the identity of a celebrity rather than building on one that intrinsically relates to a brand," says Tom Weigman, president of Sprint's consumer services group.
Though Mr. Weigman adds that most advertisers rely more on research than gut instincts, even the best laid plains can't eliminate scandals, as Pepsi-Cola and other marketers have learned.
Pepsi has had bad luck with several endorsers, from Madonna and her controversial "Like a Prayer" record to Michael Jackson and child molestation charges to convicted rapist Mike Tyson to Cindy Crawford, who sparked controversy last year after posing for photos straddling lesbian singer k.d. lang in Vanity Fair.
In 1991, basketball star Magic Johnson was Converse's longest running-1979-1994-and most highly paid spokesman when he announced he was retiring from basketball because he had become HIV positive.
Does this recent rash of celebrity woes mean advertisers will begin to rely more on animated polar bears than athletes and pop stars?
"While advertisers may now be more careful about entering into agreements with potential sponsors," says Mr. Keel, "advertisers also know that as long as celebrities have a logical and believable association with their product, they'll continue to add value."M
A bid for credibility or youth led to John Cleese pitching Magnovox and (insets), Nancy Reagan for Crest; Bruce Willis, Seagram's; and Ali MacGraw, Polaroid.A bid for credibility or youth led to John Cleese pitching Magnovox and (insets), Nancy Reagan for Crest; Bruce Willis, Seagram's; and Ali MacGraw, Polaroid.