Marketing with Celebrities

How to use Celebrities in Advertising

Would you rather buy a sports drink endorsed by the writer of this article, Ed Sztukowski, or one endorsed by football legend Peyton Manning?

Chances are, your opinions aren't as likely to be swayed by average, normal individuals who you know next to nothing about, than by well-know and popular celebrities you've developed opinions and views on. If your views on a celebrity are positive ones, that in turn makes the brand or product advertised that much more enticing.

At least, that's what advertising executives and marketing leaders are counting on. In fact, nearly 20% of all television commercials feature a famous person, according to entertainment agency the Hollywood Madison Group. However, not just any celebrity can endorse any product and have that lead to huge sales. There are both positive and negative aspects of using celebrities in advertising, aspects deeply rooted in consumer psychology and behaviorism.

The Psychology of Marketing with Celebrities

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementPsychological Response Elicited
Subway “Every Day Value” Various athletes are shown expressing amazement that Subway sandwiches are only five dollars. As they perform athletic feats, they detail what they would love to have on their sandwiches, and end the commercial with, “Subway, where winners eat.”Envy: You want to be a winner and emulate the celebrity athletes in the advertisement by buying their sandwich of choice.
Nikon “Malibu” Actor Ashton Kutcher is relaxing at his beach house, and looks down the beach to attractive women waving him down. To get a closer look, Kutcher pulls out his “sexy” S9100 camera. Desire to Increase Attractiveness: Look more attractive with this sleek, modern camera used by Ashton Kutcher.
Chanell ft. Brad Pitt A black and white picture of Brad Pitt standing halfway in and out of his house, wearing a tuxedo and sipping a drink. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 is superimposed over the image. Sex, Desire:Consumers are made to feel they can imitate Brad's sexual attractiveness by wearing Chanel no. 5.

Why use celebrities in advertisements?

The use of celebrities to sell a product is far from a new concept. In the mid 1800s, patent medicines earned the endorsements of queens and popes. Though the times have changed and the methods evolved, the same basic concepts that were true then prove effective today.

Marketing with celebrities provides opportunities to heighten the appeal of an advertisement and the product offered. When celebrities endorse a product, they transfer some of their own personal traits and values onto that product. Why is this? Research in “classical conditioning” helps to explain.

What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a psychological concept based on experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov was examining the salivation rates of dogs in his laboratory, and noticed that when the dogs saw food, they began to salivate more.

As the experiment progressed, Pavlov would ring a bell before dinner to condition the dogs to understand that a dinner bell meant food was on its way. Soon, Pavlov discovered that even if food wasn't present, when he rung the bell, salivation rates would increase.

Pavlov discovered that the dogs created an association between the ringing of the bell and food. While most advertisers aren't marketing their products to dogs exactly, this process of associative learning is important to understand why consumers create associations between celebrities and brands.

According to “Classical Conditioning and Celebrity Endorsers: An Examination of Belongingness and Resistance to Extinction,” by researchers Brian Till and others, there are three major psychological concepts considered when creating celebrity endorsement campaigns:

  • An Unconditioned Stimulus: A stimulus that automatically and naturally produces a response
  • A Conditioned Stimulus: A neutral stimulus that does not naturally produce a response
  • A Conditioned Response: A response created when pairing the unconditioned and conditioned stimuli together.

Examples of Unconditioned Stimuli

  • Music
  • Pleasant Pictures
  • Unpleasant Pictures
  • Humor
  • Celebrities

So, when a celebrity (unconditioned stimulus) endorses a brand (conditioned stimulus), it creates a (hopefully) positive response about that brand (conditioned response).

For example, when Jennifer Aniston endorses a perfume, people consider the qualities of Jennifer Aniston with the perfume. Aniston is considered one of the sexiest women on the planet, powerful, and likeable. If Aniston is endorsing a perfume, women (who view Aniston as a likeable, strong, attractive personality) in turn attribute those qualities to the perfume.

To help determine whether or not a celebrity would be a good fit for their brand, marketers take into account the “match-up hypothesis.”

Choosing the right celebrity for your campaign

When consumers view a commercial and believe that the celebrity endorser and the brand “match up,” recall of the campaign and impact of the advertisement increase. In this sense, if a celebrity endorser seems out of place in a campaign, the impact won't be nearly as powerful.

There are two major factors marketing officials consider when seeking celebrity endorsements for their products:

  • Credibility
    Expertise and Trustworthiness
  • Attractiveness
    Likeability, Familiarity, Beauty

For example, it would seem random to a consumer for an Olympic medalist, such as Michael Phelps to endorse a knife set. While Phelps is a household name and is familiar to most consumers, they don't trust his expertise in the kitchen as much as say, Chef Gordan Ramsey.

Some consumers might believe that simply throwing an attractive celebrity into a commercial is common sense advertising, and can only increase the sex appeal of a brand. But even though Phelps is in shape and well-liked, it still doesn't make sense for him to sell knives. Research into this area actually shows that factors like credibility overrules the attractiveness of a celebrity.

Predicting Campaign Effectiveness

The match up hypothesis provides a good foundation for determining the effectiveness of using celebrities in advertisements, but there are many other predictors of successful endorsement efforts. “Exploring the Relationship Between Celebrity Endorser Effects and Advertising Effectiveness,” by Clinton Amos and others describes the following qualities that determine the success – or failure – of a campaign:

  • Celebrity Performance
    The level of achievement a celebrity attains in their life.
  • Negative Information
    Negative events, situations, or characteristics consumers associate with a celebrity.
  • Celebrity Credibility
    Can the celebrity be trusted as a credible source of information about a product?
  • Celebrity Expertise
    Does the celebrity have experience in this area?
  • Celebrity Trustworthiness
    The degree of confidence consumers place in a celebrity.
  • Celebrity Attractiveness
    Is the source physically attractive?
  • Celebrity Familiarity and Likeability
    Do consumers recognize the celebrity?
  • Celebrity/Product Fit
    Does it make sense for the celebrity to endorse the product or brand?

“An Investigation into the 'Match-Up' Hypothesis in Celebrity Advertising: When Beauty May Be Only Skin Deep,” by researcher Michael A. Kamins describes that attractiveness of a celebrity may only enhance a product if that celebrity's image matches up with specific kinds of products.

Published in The Journal of Advertising, the study shows that products designed to enhance attractiveness make good fits for celebrities who sell the products based on their own attractive qualities. This is why, for instance, a perfume endorsed by Jennifer Aniston might see gains, while a similar product endorsed by an unattractive celebrity might not. Kamins concludes that for these celebrities, when products are non-attractiveness related, the impact on sales is minimal at best.

Even if advertisers choose the right celebrity for the advertisement, there still exists a level of risk when employing endorsers. Sometimes celebrity advertising can backfire if the celebrity finds him or herself embroiled in negative events.

Lauded American cyclist Lance Armstrong has recently faced more serious allegations regarding steroid use between 1999 and 2005. As a result, Nike had to distance themselves from Armstrong, even releasing a statement in October of 2012 indicating, “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.”

Exploring why we have a psychological attraction to celebrities

Celebrities, especially in the United States, hold great sway over public opinion and purchasing behavior. Understanding the psychological reasoning behind why celebrity endorsements are so effective helps better you as a marketing professional.

If you're interested in learning more about melding psychological understanding with effective marketing practices, consider exploring schools offering degrees in marketing.

Related Careers in the Field

Market Research Interviewer
Market research interviewers conduct focus groups and surveys to determine the effects a celebrity has on consumer perception of a brand. By meeting with potential customers and presenting several celebrities matched with a product, these professionals inform advertising executives about the best celebrity/brand fit. Learn more about Market Research Interviewers.

Promotions Consultant
Promotions consultants suggest different marketing campaigns to businesses and brands. These professionals might contact celebrities with endorsement offers, create budget scenarios for celebrity campaigns, and promote merchandising for a brand. Learn more about Promotions Consultants.

Advertising Executive
As the primary professional in charge of a campaign, an advertising executive typically meets with celebrities in person to hammer out endorsement deals and create lasting partnerships. Using information provided by consultants and market researchers, they guide advertising campaigns from their inception to (hopefully successful) completion.  Learn more about Advertising Executives.