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How Much Influence Do Celebrity Endorsements Really Have on Our Purchasing Decisions?

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News that superstar Beyoncé is going to receive $50 million for doing Pepsi advertisements (including a performance at the 2013 Super Bowl Half Time Show) sent food and health advocacy groups into a frenzy—how could this new mother lend her support to one of the biggest factors in our nation's obesity epidemic? Doesn't she have any ethics? A Grammy-award winning performer—and wife of rapper/mogul Jay-Z—certainly Beyoncé isn't hurting for the cash, either. Besides, will her celebrity endorsement in a Pepsi ad even sell more product, anyway?

The short answer: Yes. But, it's actually a lot more complicated.

We are no strangers to celebrities selling us lots of things. Brad Pitt has recently been appearing in Chanel commercials (as if anything smells better than Brad's man-odor). His wife, Angelina Jolie, has pushed Louis Vuitton. His ex-wife (Jennifer Aniston) was the face of Glaceau's Vitamin Water. Burger King unveiled its recent healthy menu changes with help from celebs including Steven Tyler, Salma Hayek and soccer player David Beckham—a superstar athlete hocking fast food? Really? When Dr. Oz mentions omega-fatty acids, store shelves are empty for days. When he came under attack for his December 2012 TIME magazine article in which he seemed to dismiss organic food, echoes of "Yah! Organic food is too expensive!" could be heard from every corner of the Internet, and outrage at his comments from every other corner—as if his words were etched in slabs of stone.

According to a University of Arkansas research study (in conjunction with Manchester Business School in the United Kingdom), the reason we see so many celebrities in product advertisements and endorsment situations may be that marketers are keenly aware that "a range of consumer-celebrity relationships conspires to allow consumers to form a personal identity that matches who they want to be." These messages (which can be multiple ads for one product/brand from a celebrity, or even multiple different brands that rely on the same celebrity), "help consumers develop a portfolio of relationships that allow them to function as creators of meaning for themselves." The study authors call these relationships “celebrityscapes” or “celebrity bricolages." In other words, if you eat/smoke/drink the same as David Beckham or Brad Pitt, you might also think you emulate their other (mega) more desirable traits, too. In the case that you don't want to emulate them, but rather are attracted to them, you're still more likely to purchase those products in some strange psychological attempt to attract that (type of) person into your life. (That is TOTALLY NOT why I would buy anything Brad Pitt's worn or accidentally grazed.) It's a little bit magic...yes, but mostly just misspent money.

As a culture that spends much of our free time in front of the television and/or movie screen, celebrity endorsements are paramount to a brand's success—especially as consumers are becoming better educated and more aware about what food and products they're purchasing. A consumer's predilection for celebrities will make them more sympathetic to a brand—even one that's been pinpointed as causing our nation's health problems. If our favorite movie star is munching on a KitKat bar, they probably know something we don't, right? (They do: the exact number of zeroes on their endorsement check.)

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From the Organic Authority Files

A Taiwanese study (PDF) found that consumers are quicker to "memorize" the product a celebrity is involved with, whether they're a fan or not. The human brain recognize celebrities similarly to how we recognize people we actually know. This tethers us to whatever they're promoting. And if we happen to be fans, we're even more likely to place value on products they're endorsing—just like advice from a valued friend.

Back in the 1920s, advertising genius Bruce Barton, who helped create the brand that is General Electric, said that branding helps corporations "find their souls" and become more real, more important to the consumer. As the bright labels and sleek ads of branded products overshadowed boring old commodities, celebrities naturally fell into the delivery mechanism in earnest. With industry finding its footing, and many companies still privately-owned and operated at the beginning of the 20th century, this model made sense. Those celebrities were more likely to use the products they promoted, feed them to their families and friends. But do you really think David Beckham regularly eats at Burger King? What about Beyoncé? How many Pepsis will she likely drink today?

Of course, a celebrity doesn't have to be alive to sell products, either. Scores of ads have relied on celebrities from bygone eras. Many simply use a popular song by a popular artist, or feature a cartoon or comic book character to infuse an emotional attachment with the audience. In her seminal 1999 best-selling book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Naomi Klein wrote, "By the end of the 1940s, there was a burgeoning awareness that a brand wasn't just a mascot or a catchphrase or a picture printed on the label of a company's product; the company as a whole could have a brand identity or a "corporate consciousness." This endeavor moved advertisers away from the brands attributes and "toward a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people's lives."

But that methodology may soon be a practice of the past. Blind faith is beginning to wane as consumers are now easily armed with mobile phone apps and a multitude of tools to help them validate products and services, despite what Brad Pitt's wearing. (Seriously though, what is he wearing right now? Do you know?) Is it safe? Are there healthier/cheaper/better alternatives? Additionally, cause-driven marketing has skyrocketed in recent years as consumers yearn to make purchasing decisions that "signal a deeply held belief and a profoundly social act," according to AdAge, "Brands that understand this and can create a consumer experience that feels less transactional and more pro-social will build deep loyalty."

In a Fast Company article, Morgan Clendaniel writes: "Brands that are perceived as irresponsible or just creating products with no meaning are in danger of being severely punished by consumers." Of course that means that the celeb-reliant brands will push even harder to win you over with your favorite stars; brands will also begin selling you on product attributes—the very focus the marketing industry moved away from in the 1940s, because those values, while they may have dissappeared for the last half-century, are certainly on the rise. And If a brand can't do that—if a company can't tell you why a product is actually good or useful—and if the ads rely instead on sexy actors, cute cartoon characters or popular musicians, chances are that's all that's really being sold to you anyway—a flashy, expensive and fleeting performance. Remember to applaud.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Chanel


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