A star's endorsement comes packaged with risks
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e know now, as if we didn't before, that Whoopi Goldberg is irascible and irreverent, so much so that her recent politically charged routine at a Democratic fund-raiser got her fired as spokeswoman for the weight loss shake Slim-Fast.
Given the subsequent debate -- the pundit circles were electrified -- one would think Goldberg was the first and only celebrity ever to lose an endorsement deal over a personal act or statement.
But ever since Josiah Wedgwood invented the celebrity endorsement in the 18th century by cashing in on his connection to British Queen Charlotte as "Potter to Her Majesty," companies and celebrities who are paid to represent them have had a tenuous relationship.
When they work -- Bill Cosby and Jell-O, for example -- they can raise a product's profile and a company's bottom line and bring thousands or even millions of dollars to the celebrity.
And we all notice when they don't: Anita Bryant, whose vitriol against gays in 1970s forced the Florida orange juice growers to cancel her endorsement contract in light of public (read: customer) protests, or more recently, Kobe Bryant, who lost millions of dollars in endorsement deals after his arrest on rape charges.
"These things have been going on a long time," said Point Park journalism professor Bob O'Gara, who teaches advertising and marketing. "Endorsements are tough. You have to make a match between a company and a celebrity's persona both present and future. Someone might be great at a point in time, but years later might be up to their neck in controversy. Pepsi years ago stubbed its toe time after time. They had Madonna, Michael Jackson, even Mike Tyson."
Given the potential for harm, it would seem that corporate America would be loathe to hire celebrity endorsers. But it's not, in part because celebrities bring instant attention, whether appearing in a television commercial or wearing a milk mustache. What's more, depending on their image, they can bring credibility to a product, such as with Bob Dole and Viagra.
"People look to celebrities as influencers -- what they're wearing, what they're drinking, what they're doing," said Rita Tateel, president of Celebrity Source in Los Angeles, which matches companies and celebrities. "There's always a risk when you're dealing with human beings. They'll make mistakes or do something that will have an adverse reaction for companies. The question is, does the advantage outweigh the risk? The right spokesperson can readily add to the bottom line."
Scott Morgan, executive vice president of Blattner and Brunner, an advertising agency with offices here and in Washington, D.C., agrees.
"It becomes a question of how much risk do you want to take," Morgan said. "A celebrity endorser is a real live person interacting in real life. Are they going to go out and get drunk and kill someone driving their motorcycle. You don't know."
"You walk a fine line with a celebrity endorsement," added Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey. "Unless you have someone with a really squeaky clean reputation, things like this are going to happen with someone in the public eye."
For companies looking to hire a spokesperson, a key indicator of how a celebrity will fare with the public is indicated by a "Q score," which, simply put, measures a celebrity's likability in surveys done twice a year: in January/February and July/August.
Goldberg, for example, has a Q score of 32, a number so high that among 1,750 celebrities and media personalities ranked by Marketing Evaluations Inc./The Q Scores Company, she sat comfortably in the Top 50 in terms of her likability among the public earlier this year. The average Q score is 17, said Steve Levitt, the company's president.
(At the top of the list was Tom Hanks, with a Q score of 57 out of a possible 100, and nearer the bottom, Martha Stewart, with a Q score of 10. And while her products might be popular, her personal popularity, even before her recent fraud conviction, never scored high.)
Goldberg also is included in the July/August study, currently being conducted. And despite the brouhaha with Slim-Fast, Levitt thinks it's unlikely her Q Score will be affected by more than 2 or 3 points, which isn't considered significant.
"Her fans are her fans, however anyone 'in the middle' could be influenced and their opinion of Whoopi might be swayed," Levitt said. "Regardless, we expect Whoopi's Q Score to remain more or less unchanged."
But while a Q score will measure likability, it's not always an indicator of how well a celebrity pitch will go over with the public. Even someone completely credible can fail at the advertising game.
Levitt cites the example of the disastrous ad campaign featuring John Wayne selling Daytril 500, a headache medicine.
"Cowboy heroes aren't supposed to get headaches," Levitt said. "As lovable as he was, it was a bad connection with the product."
It was a different story with actor John Houseman. As a star of "Paper Chase," Houseman portrayed a stern, bow-tie wearing Harvard law professor. The financial firm Smith-Barney made a superb investment when they hired Houseman as pitchman for an advertising campaign in which he said, "Smith Barney. They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it."
Houseman's image and the company's meshed perfectly.
But when Houseman was hired by fast-food giant McDonald's, the ad campaign failed miserably. It simply made no sense, Levitt pointed out, to have the dignified Houseman eating a dripping, greasy burger.
And that's the risk companies take. Whether it's personality or personal behavior, using a celebrity endorser, in the words of longtime Pittsburgh ad man Albert Dudreck, is simply "a crapshoot."
"I can tell you it's dangerous. A lot of people have successfully endorsed a lot of products," said Dudreck, who was founder of Dudreck, DePaul, Ficco & Morgan. "But as a company, you are at the mercy of the actions and attitudes of the person endorsing the product."
First Published July 22, 2004 12:00 am