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Celebrities aren't nearly as celebrated on Main Street as they were three years ago. And this has Madison Avenue rethinking the maxim, When you have nothing important to say, get someone very important to say nothing for your brand.

"Unless they are virgins in terms of advertising endorsements, you can no longer assume the public will be interested in what they say or how they say it," says Tom Messner, whose Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, decided to use Whoopi Goldberg for MCI Communications Corp. Ms. Goldberg has earned a reputation as one of the top 10 celebs of the year in commercials.

"But even if it is the celebrity's first commercial," Mr. Messner says, "the match [between spokesman and product] has to make perfect sense to the consumer."

He isn't alone in withholding approval of spots using celebrities for the sake of their celebrity. The public's approval rating has fallen to 17%-its lowest since 1988-after peaking at 28% in 1993.

Initiating the decline was the fall from grace of two erstwhile favorite endorsers-Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson in 1994. And though Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan did make the U.S.' favorite athlete endorser list in the first year of the downturn, her association with a scandal, even as a victim, denied her the commercial longevity known, as "legs."

Now, the public is so jaded that only 14% believe "celebrities are more convincing than other presenters"-a rating that stands at barely half the pre-scandal days. At the same time, however, "they make commercials more entertaining" has regained its lost stature.

This is a mixed message suggesting that while the pubic likes seeing the celebrities, it does not really believe them. Indeed, a near record 63% believe celebrities that hawk products are "just doing it for the money" while an all-time high of 43% continue to believe that these famous spokesmen "don't even use the product."

The notion that celebrities add more entertainment than credibility is corroborated by the measure of their attention-getting ability. Viewers are as willing as ever to let the celebrities upstage the brand.

Dave Vadehra is president of Video Storyboard Tests.

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