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Category: Consumer culture

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Credibility and the rise of celebrity endorsements

Why is it that so many brands use celebrities as spokespeople?  Through whatever has fueled their fame (acting, sporting achievements, etc.), they have already moved through the first barrier every mature person develops: skepticism.

Skeptical consumers are not new.  Wary of being sold “a bill of goods,” skepticism was personified in the great American Broadway hit, The Music Man.  The main plot centers on a traveling salesman who arrives in a small town, gains the trust of everyone there and then cashes in his credibility selling them something he doesn’t have (namely music lessons).  I remember, as a boy, playing the part of one of the town’s children.  My mother had volunteered the whole family to be part of the production.  If I remember correctly, I had one line, “Who, me?” that I stood and delivered during a scene where the Music Man was gaining his credibility by interacting with the children.  I remember thinking to myself that there was no way I would have fallen for this con man in real life.  The truth is, despite lessons portrayed in such stories as The Music Man, even when burned into the American psyche, we continue to fall for conmen and conwomen.  And the reason is credibility.

Celebrities make an interesting case study in credibility. When we have watched them play a character on a favorite show or movie or have experienced the highs and lows with them of championship play, we begin to feel like we actually, personally know them. We begin to draw the curtain of skepticism.

When a brand is doing mass marketing through television or radio they don’t have the luxury of using a Brand Evangelist in your social circle.  Perhaps someday technology will allow everyone to watch a Superbowl ad with each person seeing a different picture of a spokesperson.  Uncle Jimmy for me, perhaps cousin Susan for you.  Until then, marketers have to settle for Peyton Manning.

And Peyton is great.  We have seen him win, we have seen him lose, and we have made an emotional connection to one degree or another.  And the degree of the connection is directly associated to the degree to which we’ll make an irrational decision.

But there is a flaw, a kink in the system advertisers don’t want you to know.  There is no rational connection at all between a celebrity and a product/service (even if the celebrity has used it).  This is best characterized by the fall of Tiger Woods.  After his personal life was exposed a few major brands dropped him as a spokesperson.  Why?  Was it because it’s impossible to be both a sex addict and be a reasonable spokesman for cars or apparel?  No.  It’s because it snapped the illusion.  We really didn’t know Tiger Woods.  He wasn’t the person we each had made him out to be in our own individual minds.  It severed the emotional connection.  No connection.  No sales.