Close-Up: Live Issue - Do celebrity endorsements still work?

Have consumers become immune to the power of celebrity in ad campaigns?

A survey in Marketing last week revealed that one in five mothers said the sight of Victoria and David Beckham plugging something in an ad would be more likely to put them off. Only 16 per cent were prepared to admit that celebrity endorsement would persuade them to buy a product.

But despite what people may tell pollsters, many brands still seem to believe in the power of celebrity. As Christmas approaches, consumers can look forward to the Spice Girls shopping at Tesco, Take That sporting Marks & Spencer's Autograph range, and Westlife and Wendy Richard joining Joan Collins in a very crowded Post Office.

Alan Cluer is one of adland's premier celebrity fixers, cutting deals between A-list names and agencies since the early 80s. He's brought together many of advertising's most famous partnerships, including Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury's; Rowan Atkinson and Barclaycard; and Henry Kissinger and The Economist.

Cluer thinks that rather than more celebrities, we're actually seeing fewer. "I think the internet has caused a bit of a downturn in the demand for celebrities as budgets have shifted out of TV," he says.

The facts seem to back him up. Millward Brown has been keeping track of the proportion of ads using celebrities over the past ten years. In 2001, 17 per cent of TV ads the company was testing featured a celebrity. Last year, that fell to 8 per cent, and this year it's at 6 per cent. Peter Walshe, its global brands director, says that "using celebrity is just one way of building brands. As budgets have tightened, the added cost of using a celebrity needs to be factored in."

On whether celebrity ads work, though, there is no definitive answer. "When we evaluate ads across a whole range of factors, we see no significant difference between ads with celebrities and ads without," he adds.

The IPA director-general, Hamish Pringle, wrote Celebrity Sells in 2004. He believes that while the Millward Brown figures might not pick up every campaign, there may be a trend at work. "As with many things, there are fashions in advertising, and we may be seeing that here," he says.

"Nevertheless, we're still seeing huge, blockbuster campaigns featuring celebrities. The important thing is to recognise that celebrity is only an executional device. You need an idea first and then you can use a celebrity to deliver that idea."

The ever-present risk for brands when using celebrities is that they misbehave or even rubbish the brand they're endorsing. The model Jodie Kidd was dropped recently by Marks & Spencer after becoming embroiled in a drugs scandal. And according to Cluer, celebrities need to be equally careful about the brands they get into bed with. "It's a worry when a company someone has sponsored gets into serious trouble and threatens their reputation. In very litigious places such as the US, this is a particular concern," he says.

There's also the problem of over-exposure. According to Pringle: "There is research to show that consumers lose confidence in celebrities who do too many things. Consumers understand that celebrities are paid, so why should they be believed? If a celebrity says lots of things for lots of brands, this only reinforces the idea. The job for agencies is to demonstrate that the celebrities do care about what they're endorsing."

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CLIENT - Suzi Williams, group marketing and brand director, BT

"In today's X-Factor culture, a famous face in advertising can be a fast-track route to brand celebrity. But it's not cheap and it's not without risks.

"The big thing in advertising these days is 'do people want to see it again?' With the right celebrity, the answer is more likely to be 'yes'.

"If you choose the celebrity well in the first place, it should be a mutually beneficial partnership. They should want to build their brand with yours.

"We check people out before using them, but it's hard to legislate for their future. If you get into bed with a celebrity who's bigger than your brand, you've got to be aware of the possible consequences."

CELEBRITY EXPERT - Alan Cluer, celebrity fixer

"I think the internet has caused a bit of a downturn in the demand for celebrities of late as budgets have shifted out of TV, but I think that's changing.

"In the past, I could negotiate deals with clearly defined territorial limits. Now when it's on the internet, it's worldwide, which celebrities don't like and which can naturally inflate the price.

"The key when using celebrities is to get the best talent available who will be known to your audience and appropriate to the brand and message. James Gandolfini for American Airlines is a great example.

"I can't think of a single celebrity, with the exception of Michael Caine, who isn't open to endorsement."

PLANNER - George Bryant, head of planning, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"Celebrities can no longer be the idea. Where once this industry seemed to throw celebrities at every problem, today we have to be far more considered and strategic about their application.

"At our best, we create ideas with the power to change the fortunes of our clients' businesses. It is ideas that must have pre-eminence, not celebrities. Sometimes celebrities can play a useful role in service of these business-changing ideas and other times they won't.

"And to quote Bananarama, if you do decide to use a celebrity, 'it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it'."

INDUSTRY BODY CHIEF - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA; author, Celebrity Sells

"Celebrity is an executional device. The idea must come first. If the right celebrity is chosen and fits with the brand, the idea and the target market, it can be an accelerant.

"There are really three parties in the marriage: brand, celebrity and consumer. The brand and the celebrity effectively have a baby, something that adds value to the idea. If either partner is behaving badly, it can have a bad effect on the baby.

"While some celebrities get over-exposed, others can manage it quite well. David Beckham can get away with it because he has the three Fs: family, football and fashion. Brands can hook into Brand Beckham through these different channels."

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