Celebrity pulling power on the wane

Is the tide now turning on the sea of famous faces appearing in advertising.

Morrisons: dropping celebrities
Morrisons: dropping celebrities

With the festive season just around the corner, brands have been gearing up for the launch of their Christmas campaigns. Tradition dictates that such ads are incomplete without a host of stars, and Marks & Spencer, Very.co.uk and Waitrose have all been among those to regularly feature a festive stellar line-up.

There is a question, though, as to whether big-budget celebrity Christmas ads, with famous faces striving to be 'real people', are a turn-off for consumers in the still-tough economic climate. Do celebrities really affect inclination to purchase? Nielsen research from 2010 certainly suggests that this can still have an influence on the public (see above). Even so, are celebrities worth the significant investment that brands make in signing them up?

Morrisons would appear to think not. Earlier this month, the supermarket revealed that it is ditching ex-England cricketer Andrew Flintoff and other celebrities from its ads, in favour of a campaign focused on mothers, in time for Christmas. It believes that celebrities are overly prevalent on TV screens during the festive period, so its positioning switch is intended to differentiate the brand and get consumers to sit up and take notice.

With consumers still watching their budgets, brands flaunting big-fee-demanding celebrities across their campaigns could look out of touch with the audiences they are trying to reach.

There is also the risk, amply illustrated in recent weeks, of damage to the brand if a celebrity falls out of favour in some way.

Do stars belong in the world of advertising only when they are integral to a brand's story, and should the use of such ads be reconsidered in the current climate? We asked Richard Larcombe, director of advertising and sponsorship at Virgin Media, and Hamish Pringle, strategic adviser at creative agency 23red and author of Celebrity Sells.


HAMISH PRINGLE, Strategic adviser, 23red, and author of Celebrity Sells

Some brands use stars once a year as if to decorate their brand like a Christmas tree, adding an injection of sparkle during a prime selling season.

No doubt John Whaite, winner of The Great British Bake Off, will be the icing on some brand's Christmas cake, but will his presence tie in with the long-term positioning or just be a temporary flash in the pan?

Other brands use individual stars all year round, but at Christmas often bring them together to showcase a range of gift ideas and portray a fantasy proxy family gathering where, spookily, everybody gets along.

Virgin Media has followed Usain Bolt with Mo Farah, and many brands will try to carry the London 2012 feel-good factor into the holiday period to counter the economic gloom.


- Sort out the brand story first.

Only then book a celebrity to play the part.

- Hiring an ephemeral reality show star can be great value - just don't expect exclusivity or much residual value.

- Find a way to inherit the Olympic spirit - but within the rules.


RICHARD LARCOMBE - Director of Advertising and Sponsorship, Virgin Media

Seasonality should have no bearing on whether a celebrity is used. Either it's right for the long-term marketing strategy of a brand or it's not.

The most successful campaigns in recent times, such as Boots and John Lewis, have simply used brilliant insight and ideas. On this basis, Morrisons is doing the right thing; its challenge will be to differentiate itself.

Brands that use celebrities should subvert them. Unless you have the budget for triple-A talent, famous faces need a twist to remain engaging - as in Walkers' long-running 'nice guy turned nasty' campaign.

There's also the 'hired gun' pitfall, best avoided by weaving the skill of the personalities into the narrative, establishing a purpose beyond simply being the face of the brand, such as Heston and Delia for Waitrose. Digital also offers opportunities to use talent across multiple platforms. So before signing, check their social footprint.



- Idea first, talent second.

- Where possible, subvert talent.

- Use talent beyond TV - immerse them in the heart of the idea.

- Integrate across digital.