Charles Vallance
Charles Vallance
A view from Charles Vallance

Gun for hire

Brands must use celebrities with caution.

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About three years ago, I nearly wrote an article suggesting that we had hit peak celebrity (in advertising). I'm glad I didn't, because I'd have been wrong. Or at least wrong up to a point.

It is fair to say that, until recently, the tide of celebrity-based ads did seem to be subsiding. This in part might have been due to the rise of more purposeful campaigns, such as "This girl can", "Dirt is good", "Campaign for real beauty", "Meet the superhumans", "Together against hate" etc.

For a number of years, celebrity's value as a vehicle for philanthropic messaging has been tanking. The same goes for political messaging, as Hillary Clinton's star-studded election campaign learned to its cost.

But, this year, we are back to celebrity high tide. Ad breaks are again awash with celebrity endorsement. There are, of course, the hardy perennials, such as Lineker, Keitel and the increasingly startled-looking Bacon. And there are the regular cameo performers, such as Elton, Joanna and Joan, not to forget the superbly commercial Ant & Dec, who seem to advertise everything around and within Britain’s Got Talent

There are, of course, plenty of ex-sportsmen, including Flintoff, Bolt, Crouch, Redknapp, Cantona et al. And any number from the thespian community, such as Idris, Clooney, Keira, Lily, Johnny and cosa nostra De Niro. There's a healthy smattering of singers and models, including Lana, Kylie, Cara, Romeo. I could go on. But I won't. Enough already.

Now, of course, I am not decrying the use of celebrity. It has been, and will remain, an entirely creditable creative vehicle. It is always an option we consider at VCCP and we’ve used it to good effect on numerous occasions. But when half the market is opting for the same basic device, it is worth revisiting the cautionary arguments against it as a default setting.

The first is borrowed interest. There is always the danger that the celebrity might upstage the brand. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the wonderful Martini campaign with Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter ("The aroma wasn't built in a day"), which was, in fact, for Cinzano. You don't see Cinzano around too much these days. 

The next is reputational risk, because it has been known for celebrities to misbehave from time to time. This can backfire quite badly on a brand and lead to the unedifying spectacle of a company cancelling its contract with its superstar just when they are at their lowest ebb. Which can in turn make the client and agency look just as mercenary as the celebrity who signed the deal in the first place.

The third point, which is perhaps the easiest to legislate for, is acting ability and overall level of enthusiasm. There are plenty of celebrity performances that look dialled in or just plain awkward. Formula One drivers, in particular, seem rather reluctant – even truculent – performers. The problem when you hire a gun is that their heart may not always be in it. As Jon Snow will tell you, sellswords aren't always to be relied on. In which case, winter may be coming for the campaign. 

The fourth point is about campaign integration and cohesion. Celebrities can be quite choosy about when, where and how they feature in advertising. Often it’s TV only, or TV and posters. It’s seldom anything resembling a sales message in print or online. This is when the value exchange sometimes needs to be scrutinised. Who’s advertising whom? Is it possible that your brand is being vamped by the celebrity’s own management of his or her profile? 

Then there is the issue of ad stock. The best use of celebrity often involves an inseparable association between performer and brand. When the brand or performer moves on, however, this very ingredient of success is lost and it’s back to square one in terms of mental availability. Worse still, the celebrity may go on to appear in someone else’s advertising, indirectly chanelling the fame your brand generated into someone else’s budget. 

So should you be joining the orderly queue writing six- or seven-figure cheques to the assembled throng of celebrity? Perhaps. But I'd first survey your output over the past year. How much interest have you created and how much have you borrowed? And if you've chosen the celebrity route more often than not, you should maybe check the interest rate you're paying on the loan.

Charles Vallance is chairman and co-founder of VCCP