Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Excerpts from my new book The Cult of Celebrity, Part 5

Most market researchers agree that celebrity is a powerful selling tool—not only for teens and children but for consumers of all ages. Advertisers aim to make a psychological connection between the product and a celebrity, to create what is called a “human brand.” According to a study published by the American Marketing Association in 2006, we have a very strong attachment to human brands because early in life we learn to attach ourselves to humans. It is deeply embedded in us that human faces elicit emotional responses. We also learn to attend to the wants of other humans whom we trust, listen to what they tell us, and trust that what they say is true.

As we grow, the same psychological process causes us to generalize to trusting celebrities when they tell us that we should buy brand A or brand B. Some research has also shown that a celebrity-endorsed product has a higher product recall rate, meaning you tend to remember a product in an ad better when a celebrity has lent his or her face and name to it. Thanks to researchers Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, we know more about consumer psychology than ever before. They have a theory that says there are two ways we make up our minds about which products to buy.

First, there is practical decision making based on diligent consideration and weighing the true merits of the available products. For example, you don’t just buy a car based on how cute Lindsay Lohan looked crashing hers. You do some real investigation; you decide what your needs are, which car gets the best gas mileage, and which fits into your price range.

The second way we can choose a product is based on whether the product is associated with either a positive or a negative cue; that is, whether it gives us a good or a bad feeling. In this situation, you may buy a particular lipstick because you like the celebrity who endorses it or because it looks cute on Kelly Ripa. It is this second type of decision making that companies bank on—literally—when they hire a popular celebrity to be their spokesperson.

According to Michael Kamins, PhD of the University of Southern California, when a company chooses to use a celebrity in an advertisement, rather than an expert or an ordinary person, there is a science to choosing which celebrity to use. An ad agency must consider the celebrity’s social risk: Is he rumored to be gay? Has she been divorced too many times? Is he a known drug addict? Another aspect to consider is the celebrity’s level of exposure. Is this a celebrity who has too many endorsement deals that will conflict with the product or confuse the consumer? Or is it a celebrity who is already too much of a“brand”? Does she come with an image that is hard to change, an image that is larger than life—or in this case, larger than the product’s image? The demographic appropriateness of the star is crucial, too.In other words, who is it that the company is marketing to, and which celebrities do those people like? Shakira might be the perfect person if a company is selling a new lipstick to Latina women, but maybe she’s not such a great choice for the Jazzy Power Chair.

Of course recognizability is vital. On a billboard you don’t have time to explain that the guy holding the cola bottle played the guy who got killed in the second episode of Heroes, so it has to be someone who people can quickly identify. For a celebrity ad to work, you have to be able to look at it and immediately say, for instance, “Oh, that’s Beyonce in that [fill in the blank] ad—got it.” And marketers want a celebrity who is attractive, likable, popular, and most important, honest.