Tuesday, April 6, 2010
What impels us to buy something? Is it the quality of the item? The masterful craftsmanship? Maybe our deep sense of brand loyalty? Or, possibly, is it just because we saw someone famous using the product? They're cool and they use it, so my exceptional powers of deductive reasoning would lead me to believe that I too have the potential for coolness if only I would shell out the $19.99 plus shipping and handling for this incredibly handy and definitely not useless item.
The 90s would have most of us believing our reason to buy stems from the latter. Celebrity endorsements were everywhere, with actors, musicians, sports stars, and television personalities picking up side gigs hawking for every imaginable product. We couldn't turn on the TV or flip open a magazine without seeing our favorite stars' testimonials to some product or other that they were certain we had to have. Granted, our voyeurism had not yet reached Perez Hilton 24hour celebrity watchdog level, so it's possible these stars didn't have quite the level of influence and sway over us. That sounds suspiciously like a defensive excuse, though, from someone who bought a piece of junk because a celebrity told her to. Hey, I'm not saying it was me, but...okay, it was me. I'm still kicking myself for drinking milk just because those Got Milk? ads drew me in their catchy celebrity mustachioed photos with accompanying blurbs. I knew I should have listened to Fred Savage and had a Pepsi instead.
This strategy, like any marketing style, has its pitfalls. Recently we've seen companies pull the plug on celebrity spokespeople following some form of public relations debacle, such as in the cases of Kate Moss's cocaine allegations and Tiger Wood's insatiable appetite for questionable women. Having a celebrity as your spokesperson can undoubtedly lend some credibility and clout to your product, but there's no guarantee your chosen celebrity will conduct himself in a manner aligned with your company's public image.
The list below is by no means exhaustive; countless celebrities signed on to promotional deals during the decade. It does highlight some of the more interesting backstories, though:
George Foreman Grill
Reclaiming the heavyweight championship at the overripe age of 45 is pretty impressive, but that feat has since been nearly eclipsed by George Foreman's later success as a fat-busting grilling entrepreneur. Even though most of us knew Foreman as a tough guy boxer, he seemed almost cuddly in these commercial spots. It's tough to say exactly what impelled all of us to purchase these allegedly diet-supporting device from a man whose career was dependent on his maintenance of a heavy weight, but it was pretty fun to watch all of that fat drain off of our burgers.
Kathy Lee Gifford for Wal-Mart
When your PR firm tries to foresee potential damage control situations for a celebrity-endorsed product, it's unlikely they'd come up with something quite as damaging as this one. Kathy Lee Gifford, then famous for her co-hosting gig on Regis and Kathy Lee, teamed up with Wal-Mart in the mid-90s to produce a clothing line. The line seemed to be a mutually beneficial deal until evidence surfaced that the Kathy Lee clothing was being produced at a Honduras sweatshop by young teenage girls. Even worse, the girls received around 31 cents an hour for up to 75 hours of weekly work. When the news broke, it was nothing short of a devastating scandal for both parties.
Paula Abdul for LA Gear
I have to say, these commercials were pretty convincing. Celebrities have endorsed flashy products for years, but perhaps never so literally as the LA Lights sneakers. As Paula says in the commercial, "Nobody tells me what to wear." This probably could have used an amendment like "...except the good people at LA Gear, who are telling me to wear these shoes in exchange for financial gain."
Michael Jordan for Nike
This one is pretty much a no-brainer: find the most successful and talented sports player of your time, and get him to shill for your sports-themed product. Even the least prestigious products can afford a sellout like, say, Shaq, but it takes a special type of product to draw in a Michael Jordan. I loved watching him on the Bulls, but I admit that Space Jam sealed the deal for me. To this day whenever I'm in the market for Hanes tagless t-shirts, I reassure myself of the purchase with a heartfelt, "It's what Michael Jordan would want me to do."
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird for McDonalds
If you take nothing else away from this commercial, consider Jordan's example of bringing a Big Mac along to the gym. It's like smoking a cigarette while jogging. Sure, you're working out, but the second variable is bringing you right back down to health baseline. This was shown in two parts during the Superbowl, culminating in a basketball shooting contest with the ultimate prize: a Big Mac. I'm sure that these professional athletes gain no greater satisfaction from their sport than the thrill of earning their very own two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, on a sesame seed bun.
Madonna for Pepsi
You know you're in trouble when the Vatican is condemning your commercial. Madonna debuted her "Like a Prayer" single in a Pepsi ad, soon after releasing
Bill Cosby for Jello
Anyone who has ever attempted a Bill Cosby impression knows the most immediately recognizable elements to incorporate are invariably a vibrantly hued thick-knit sweater and a solid (gelatinous?) command of his classic Jell-O commercials. They're easily mockable, sure, but they are ultimately memorable, so it seems like the joke's on us: the advertising stuck.
Eric Clapton for Anhauser-Busch
If you want to split hairs, this ad series debuted in 1988, but it's just too juicy to leave off the list. Clapton appeared in the ads shilling for Micheloeb with a version of "After Midnight." Unfortunately for the people at Anhauser-Busch, by the time these ads came out Clapton had admitted himself to a rehab facility and admitted to struggling with alcoholism. Yikes. Not exactly the implied message you want attached to your product. "Drink our beer....until you need professional intervention to stop."
Countless Celebrities for Got Milk?
These print ads were hugely popular throughout the 90s and beyond, with innumerable celebrities signing on to be a part of the mustachioed fun. The list of celebrity endorsers would elongate this post to about four times its legal limit, but suffice it to say most celebrities felt confident and secure aligning themselves with the generally non-controversial dairy industry.
Alyssa Milano, Mr. T, Sarah Michelle Gellar, David Arquette, Michael Jordan, Ed O'Neill, and many, many more for various collect calling services
Services like 1-800-Collect and 10-10-220 (and other various random number combinations repeated daily to us via celebrity spokespeople) were everywhere in the 90s. With the widespread use of cell phones, these functions have slid into obscurity, but back in the 90s they were a legitimate necessity for some callers. To attract callers to use their respective services, companies enlisted the help of many, many different celebrities to urge us to dial their code so they could get paid already. I mean, so we could have cheaper long distance rates. Something like that.
Whether or not we like to admit it, the rich and famous have influence over our daily decisions. Their endorsement of a product or service may not convince us to buy it, but it certainly couldn't hurt. Unless, you know, it erupts in a huge public scandal like some of these did. In those cases, it probably hurt. I retract my previous statement.