Are Celebrities Worth It?

CELEBRITIES too have timers attached to them. The catch is: it’s not so easily visible. Especially, when they become immensely indispensable to the advertising industry. It takes special skill to realise that every so often, there comes a time, when after a successful run, many celebrities run out of steam. It requires extra-sensory perception to realise that their presence alone is not enough to empty out shop 

Is superstar Amitabh Bachchan facing such a crisis? If you look at the iconic actor’s career graph outside Bollywood, using KBC-1 as the starting point, Mr Bachchan has put his considerable influence behind a number of products — colas, over-thecounter medical products, chocolates, pens, financial institutions, suitings, and so on. But, when he tried his hand at political advertising during the recently concluded UP elections, Mr Bachchan faced a barrage of derision. Besides, probably for the first time in his advertising career, Mr Bachchan’s appearance alone was not enough to ensure the success of an idea, service or a product (Mulayam Singh Yadav in this 

So, should we write off Mr Bachchan or treat this as a one-off debacle? Intuitively, it seems Mr Bachchan will continue to remain at the crease for some more time to come, but a host of lesser celebrities may have to bid farewell to the greasepaint. The current spree of celebrity advertising has refocused attention on an issue that keeps rearing its head time and again: is the advertising industry bereft of ideas and exhibiting over-reliance on the tried and tested? In fact, it is believed that the practice of using famous personalities in advertising started more than a century ago. But, the moot issue here is: has the industry been overdoing it? 

Some of the biggest brands in the world have never used a celebrity. Interestingly though, the models they used became celebrities overnight. For example, the Marlboro man has been subjected to several studies and newspapers have carried detailed stories about his personal life, including whether he is a smoker or not. In simple terms, a myth grew around an ordinary man only because smokers saw him as an aspirational character. Closer home, Surf was able to stave off competition from pesky neophyte Nirma with a little help from Lalitaji, a non-celebrity who came to epitomise the ideal housewife — truckloads of common sense, ability to bargain and, ultimately, an innate idea of how to wrest the best for home and family. The trick in this kind of non-celebrity advertising was selecting a proximate proxy for the demographic profile of the target consumer. 

But then non-celebrity advertising can be of many kinds. Many products, such as Chrysler, even used its chief executive Lee Iococca to endorse the high quality of its products. Interviewing consumers and getting them to endorse the product on screen (think Dove) is another commonly used device as well. 

There have been many other successful non-celebrity icons too, some created especially for a particular brand. For example, Joe Camel became a successful poster-dromedary for Camel brand of cigarettes, Ronald as a kid magnet for McDonald’s, the Dough Boy used by Pillsbury. Fido Dido worked wonders for Pepsico brand 7-Up. An illustration of a naughty boy — called Gattu — by famous cartoonist RK Laxman mysteriously powered the success of Indian paint MNC, Asian Paints, for over 40 years. The boy became an icon, a mnemonic reminder of whatever the brand Asian Paints (and its sub-brands) represented. Then came a time when Asian Paints had to reconfigure itself and its strategy. That entailed a tough decision – Gattu had to be retired. He went gracefully but left behind an interesting thought. 

Marketing strategists must know exactly when to reduce their reliance on superstars. These icons can be extremely helpful on occasions, especially when there seems to be some convergence between the brand values and those personified by the star himself. But, they can spell trouble for the brands as well — as Pepsi found to its chagrin with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson. Or, when a cola company found out that while Britney Spears was publicly endorsing their product, in personal life she was consuming the product of a rival company. Or, when the celebrity spreads himself thin over too many brands simultaneously. Those wanting to figure out the right timing could probably keep an eye on the Davie-Brown Index, created by Davie Brown Entertainment, a part of the Omnicom network. The index helps measure a celebrity’s sway over consumers’ buying intention as well as his influence over the brand. But whatever index you use, the message is simple: you must know when it’s time to let go. And, when that time comes, let go you must.

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