Reality stars nab Mad Ave. payday

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Those 15 minutes of fame are translating into 30-second bites as reality TV stars sign up in droves with Madison Ave.

This week Coca-Cola Co. bows a new spot starring "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. The following week, KFC breaks its newest ad campaign, which stars Evan Marriott of "Joe Millionaire" and Trista Rehn of "The Bachelorette."

The KFC ads, which feature the two stars separately, were produced by Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, and introduce a new KFC product, Honey BBQ Boneless Wings.

For Vanilla Coke, actor and brand spokesman Chazz Palminteri tries to strong arm Mr. Cowell, America's toughest critic, to endorse Vanilla Coke. The spot will debut during the March 11 episode of Fox's "American Idol," a show that Coca-Cola Co. also sponsors.

Reality TV personalities, used in the right way, can often draw the same kind of media attention from the entertainment press that mainstream celebrities can, and are far less demanding. Once off the air, they're extremely willing to extend their brief fling with fame for a more reasonable price than established stars.

"All our clients want us to outperform the ad dollar through buzz. It was extremely cost-effective and this new kind of celebrity is still a bargain," said Mark DiMassimo, chairman of DiMassimo Brand Advertising.

"They tend to be more in the D to E range of the pricing scale," agreed Sheila Clary, president of talent consultant Six Degrees.

wide practice

The first crop of "American Idol" kids appeared briefly in Gap's Old Navy ads in December, while "Survivor" cast members, especially from the first season, appeared in numerous campaigns. Reality TV's first family, the Osbournes, were cast in the latest spots for PepsiCo's Pepsi Twist.

Reality stars are also a way to guarantee additional coverage for marketers on entertainment shows, not to mention inches of free press. Media interest in the KFC spot has been phenomenal, surprising even the company's own PR agency, Edelman.

KFC's ad starring Mr. Marriott, before it's even aired, has already generated 72 million media impressions. (Impressions are counted through Nielsen Media Research figures and print readership figures.) Kim Metcalfe, Edelman VP-media services, said she had not anticipated the pace of the campaign. The offer came in on March 1, contracts with Mr. Marriott were exchanged the next day, and by March 3 the commercial had been shot, she said.

The spot features regular KFC pitchman Jason Alexander offering Mr. Marriott a wing. He ponders a moment before responding, "Do I get to pick just one?" Mr. Alexander replies, "It's not a life-long decision." Another spot stars Ms. Rehn. An air date has not been determined yet.

Michael Tierney, KFC's director of brand building, said the celebrities were the perfect match for getting consumer attention for its new product. "This is a breakthrough product and we were fortunate enough to get conceivably the most breakthrough couple to promote it," he said.

Ms. Rehn of "The Bachelorette" also appeared in Dairy Management's milk-moustache campaign, from Interpublic's Bozell, and her participation garnered almost 40 million media impressions since the ad ran in Gannett Co.'s USA Today on Feb. 19 to coincide with the finale of the show on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC. Wenner Media's Us Weekly, the Chicago Sun-Times and TV shows such as "Inside Edition," "Extra!" and "E!News" all reported on the ad.

Negotiations with reality stars are tightly controlled by the program producers to ensure there are no conflicts with the show's advertisers. "We go to the show, ask if they're interested and they make it happen," Mr. Tierney said.

Indeed, Ms. Rehn's public relations agency, mPRm in Los Angeles, also represents Telepictures Productions, which produced "The Bachelorette." "We represent the show and her celebrity on the show and anything she's doing that uses the name of the show. If she's doing something, we have to approve that," said Kate DiRenna, an account executive, adding, "though she is doing things on her own too."

Colleen Sullivan, who works on "Survivor" as the director of series publicity at Viacom's CBS, said: "While they're on the TV show, they don't do any media or commercials" to avoid conflicts. The network made a "rare" exception for a milk-moustache campaign back in August 2000, she said, noting reality stars sign a one-year contract that excludes conflicting work.

short span

Robert Thompson, Syracuse University's professor of media and popular culture and director of the Center for Popular Television, said the value of reality stars to advertisers is that they lend "live quality" to commercials, making them feel up-to-the-minute. However, he added, "These people really have a shelf life that is less than a carton of milk."

That's proven true in the case of "Survivor." Cast members, especially those on the earlier seasons, were offered numerous national ads but those from the last three seasons have appeared mainly in local ads. (See chart, above.)

A marketer also needs to be careful about what message a reality show star sends. Denise Fedewa, senior VP-planning director, LeoShe, a division of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, said she's concerned about the objectification of women in reality shows such as Fox's "Married By America." "I'd like to find out how women feel about the way they're portrayed in reality TV and advertising right now. ... There seems to be a culture of acceptance in portraying women in an objectified way," she said.

contributing: kate macarthur, wayne friedman

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