MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Commercial Failure: Dim Stars in Ads | February 3, 2011

As 2010 drew to a close, Oprah Winfrey — the arguable Queen of the Media — made two major year-end announcements: first that she’d be launching OWN, her new cable network, on January 1st of 2011; second, that her new Book Club author would be long-deceased Charles Dickens. As it stood, Winfrey’s powerful influence was unquestionable and perhaps unequaled. Her cross-format Harpo Studios empire had launched countless television stars and corresponding shows, her aforementioned Book Club had sold millions of books since its inception in 1996, and some even claimed that Oprah swung up to one million voters into Barack Obama’s pocket in the 2008 presidential election. So when OWN faltered in its debut ratings — dropping from one million viewers initially to 315,000 in four days — and Oprah’s handpicked Dickens titles sold just 21,000 copies in their first week, one had to ask: if she can’t sell products on endorsement alone, who can?

According to an Ace Metrix report issued earlier this year, the age of celebrity endorsement might be over. In a content analysis of more than 2,600 advertisements, the California-based firm — which boasts the largest database to measure TV campaign effectiveness — found that “celebrity ads do not perform any better than non-celebrity ads…[i]n our data, whether or not a celebrity endorses a product was unimportant.” And while some celebs — most notably Oprah and Peyton Manning — still make an impact when tying their image to a product, others represent a wasted investment and an ineffective strategy. Only one tenth of star-driven campaigns, which drove up an accumulated cost of $50 billion to produce and maintain last year, performed at least ten percent better than the industry average; by comparison, a full fifth performed at least ten percent worse.

To explain this trend, Ace Metrix offers the three following reasons: viewers are confused about the product being endorsed, viewers find celeb ads boring, and viewers dislike the featured celebrities. In 2010, a year of celebrity scandal, finding a reason to dislike certain stars was not exactly difficult — especially with Tiger Woods and Brett Favre as bookends of bad behavior. The former, who has made more than $1 billion with the help of endorsements since winning his first Major, started the year off with a string of sexual infidelities, while the latter — featured for many years in a Wrangler campaign — ended it with a high-profile harassment lawsuit. Other unpopular celeb ads included Radio Shack’s use of Lance Armstrong, who constantly faces looming steroids charges; Martha Stewart for Macy’s, which was the star’s first major campaign since her imprisonment; and, without explanation necessary, reality TV varmint Snooki and disgraced Illinoisan governor Rod Blagojevich for Wonderful Pistachios.

Celebrity endorsements still work, however, when they involve creativity. The Head & Shoulders promo campaign featuring Troy Polamalu, for instance, rated seventeen percent above a typical ad (see below). Similarly, Betty White for Snickers and Carl Weathers’ Bud Light Playbook gained positive feedback. Even Snoop Dogg and Ray Lewis, both of whom have been on trial for murder within the last two decades, brought in encouraging numbers — but again, they represent the exception to the endorsement trend, not the rule.

So as the Super Bowl — the single biggest advertising day of the year — approaches this Sunday, keep your eyes open as to how many stars make their way into major campaigns. Certain details have already been leaked, like the million-dollar Lipton Brisk Iced Tea ad that will feature a claymation Eminem. As for the rest, one can only hope for advertisers that their endorsements are as creative as their endorsers are high-profile.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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