by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Thanks to a US Congress focused on the major issues of our day, such as steroid use in pro baseball, Dr. Robert Jarvik can no longer shill for cholesterol drug Lipitor.

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His appearance in ads was deemed deceptive because he claimed to be a doctor (he completed medical school but never practiced medicine), it wasn't really him in footage of a guy rowing a boat (it was a stunt double), and he didn't start taking the medication himself until a month after his $1.35 million contract had begun.

In other words, he was a celebrity spokesman. 

Marketers have been enlisting celebrity endorsements since branding's Golden Age. Hollywood's founding actors smoked certain cigarettes, and visited particular vacation destinations. I can remember Rula Lenska and her Alberto VO5 shampoo in the late 1970s. Every actor seems to make his or her way to Japan to hawk one product or another. Sports figures have been on Cheerio's boxes since, well, forever.

There's a complex and desperately convoluted rationale that supports this branding strategy. Celebrities command attention - break through the clutter -- and their reputations can somehow rub off on a product or service, thereby reinforcing the themes that consumers are supposed to remember.

I think this is an old idea that isn't particularly relevant to our new economy.

The very premise that you could pay someone to lend their image and reputation to your business is kinda flawed. They can't; they sell it, and every consumer knows that the business bought it, just like they buy the air time, pages, and web real estate to promote it.

  • Does Tiger Woods know anything about management consulting, or does he simply like the money and exposure Accenture gives him?
  • Do you think Martha Stewart ever set foot in a Kmart before it bought her name and image, let alone shopped there?
  • I can't even begin to name all of the models and actresses who've followed in dear Rula's hair swishes to sell one product or another. 

Any reasonably aware consumer could use Internet search, chat, or some other newfangled new media tool to figure out that Jarvik wasn't really a doctor, but was only playing one on TV. For the rest of us, I say the spots worked, and did so with a lot less dishonesty than most celebrity-dependent commercials. 

Here's a good rule of thumb to follow the next time your business considers a celebrity endorsement (or sponsorship, for that matter): if you have to pay for it, don't do it.

Finding well-known people who can help you communicate the truth of their support can be a great branding tool, and there's no problem monetizing the favor. But any other endorsement deal is, at best, a crass co-selling opportunity; at worst, it denigrates the integrity of your business.

Don't take my word for it. Just ask Congress.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/03/i-only-play-one.html

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