Why celebrity advertising is thriving in the pandemic
When Mark Hamill and Sir Patrick Stewart appeared together in an ad for Uber Eats in September, it wasn’t just the Star Wars vs. Star Trek theme that caught our attention; it was also the first time either of them had appeared in a commercial.
In the past few months, we’ve seen a proliferation of actors in ads—and not always for high-profile brands. Since September alone, we've seen Rick Moranis return to the screen after a nearly 20-year hiatus to appear with the ubiquitous Ryan Reynolds in a spot for Mint Mobile; Bruce Willis in an ad for Advance Auto Parts; Alan Ruck reprising his role as Cameron Frye from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in a commercial for garage door company LiftMaster; and Hugh Jackman appearing nearly naked in a spot for RM Williams, an Australian boot maker. Now David Schwimmer aka Ross from “Friends” is reportedly set to star in his first U.K. commercial, for British bank TSB. And this week, craft store Joann tapped Phyllis Smith of “The Office” to star in a webisode series.
At the same time, marketers are also bagging celebrity tie-ups; rapper Travis Scott became the first celebrity to get his name on a McDonald's menu item since Michael Jordan in 1992, and the Golden Arches' collab with singer J Balvin soon followed.
Of course, celebrity advertising is nothing new. But while A-Listers will often be prepared to star in the likes of a high-stakes Super Bowl spot, like Bill Murray in Jeep’s "Groundhog Day" effort this year, since the pandemic struck, many actors and entertainers have found themselves unemployed and at home, with their projects fallen through or put on hold. So, unsurprisingly, they’re happy to talk to brands.
“We’ve seen a lot more willingness of talent to do things that they wouldn’t necessarily have done before,” says Doug Shabelman, CEO and partner at Burns Entertainment, an entertainment agency that represents brands looking to hire celebrities or license music. The company worked on recent ads such as the LiftMaster spot with Alan Ruck (although that one was actually conceived and shot pre-pandemic). “A lot of celebrities are home, they are not doing productions of big movies and they also want to be paid, and to remain relevant.”
Money is certainly not the only factor, though, Shabelman adds. “It’s not necessarily about the dollar amount, although there may be discounts. It’s about willingness to do things they would not have done before.”
“Availability of talent trapped in their homes and able to record audio is exciting—the roster of voiceover talent has never been bigger or more willing,” says Christopher Keatinge, creative director at Uncommon, which worked on a May campaign for U.K. broadcaster ITV, featuring more than 20 celebrities on a giant Zoom call, to raise awareness of mental health.
Celebrities have also realized the need to stay engaged with fans, says Mari Cardoos Layne, partner in endorsements at WME, the global talent agency. “Once all production and music touring came to a halt, our clients became even more eager to find ways to create meaningful content and stay connected with their audience during such an uncertain time. Partnering with a brand is a perfect way to stay engaged.”
“It’s not just about the money or the exposure anymore,” she adds. “While all of that helps, of course, artists really want to work with brands, both large and small, that are making a difference and contributing to the greater good.”
For brands, securing the talent of celebrities also taps into what consumers crave during a time of uncertainty and stress: familiarity, with a touch of nostalgia. “It plays a big part,” says Shabelman. “If you look at what people are watching on TV, for example, they are going back to comfort shows like 'Friends' and 'The Office.' Rick Moranis, for example, is a familiar face to people. It’s a matter of not hitting people over the head with new talent.”
Celebrities at home
At the same time, the production landscape has changed because of COVID, and that affects the way celebrities can take part in advertising. Stars are suddenly willing to shoot ads in their homes—often self-shooting. Eva Longoria, for instance, filmed herself with two smartphones, dyeing her hair in her own home, for a L’Oréal ad by McCann; Matthew McConaughey directed himself sitting in a field in his recent spot for Wild Turkey Longbranch; and William H. Macy shot and directed himself singing a song about his local bar in a spot for Woody Creek Distillers.
“We’ve seen a lot of talent that was willing to say, yes, I can shoot something in my house,” confirms Shabelman, who cites a Jose Cuervo content campaign the agency worked on, in which celebrities such as Lil Dicky and Keke Palmer showed millennials how to make margaritas at home. “Livestreams are happening in people’s homes and on their decks. Brands have had to shift to letting the talent shoot themselves while giving direction on Zoom.”
The process, he says, has made dealing with celebrities less complicated. “Previously some talent would have insisted on a celebrity photographer or stylist but now they are willing to be more relaxed. It is changing the whole landscape.”
Cardoos Layne agrees: “It will make production simpler, and cheaper, and it really gives the talent more control and more freedom to create something unique and authentic, which at the end of the day is what brands and consumers both want.”
And for celebrities, it has the effect of making them more relatable, which, in an era where brands have turned to “influencers” precisely for that reason, can work in their favor. “Peering into celebrities' lives via Zoom call has normalized them somewhat. You get a glimpse into their everyday homes—their clutter, their questionable décor, their dog or kid or partner vacuuming in the background. They become a bit less otherworldly, and a bit more like us,” says Tom Houser, Uncommon creative director, who worked with Keatinge on ITV's giant Zoom call.
Super Bowl predictions
It’s a trend that we can also expect to see as the Super Bowl approaches. WME's Cardoos Layne predicts “a lot more self-produced content and at-home musical performances.” While brands will still rely on big-budget productions with A-list celeb-driven creative to make their in-game mark, other activations around the Super Bowl, such as the live events and other in-person brand activations, may not take place. “Brands will have to make up for that in the form of other digitally driven content,” she says.
Shabelman also believes you can expect to see celebrities taking part in “360 degree” campaigns around the Super Bowl. “Whereas once you might have have secured the celebrity for the ad and maybe one tweet, this year you are going to see them wrap their arms around everything in terms of social, PR and activations. It’s also about how do we engage those fans in a bigger way?”
So, for brands, tapping the pool of available celebrities can be a big win, but there should still be a degree of caution. Early on in the pandemic, we saw at-home performances by celebrities get a mixed reception—remember Gal Gadot and her all-star singalong to "Imagine?"
“Even during the most precedented of times, I’ve always been ever-so-slightly wary of using the wrong ‘talent’ (inverted commas sadly often too necessary),” says Jonathan Burley, chief creative officer at agency group Miroma. “With the A-listers currently rattling their tins to make an extra shilling whilst the studios are gathering dust, it’s all too easy to be seduced. I would personally sound a quiet note of caution to those brands dazzled by the glamour of buying a famous face, and ask that simplest of questions: Where’s the link?”