Monthly Archives: April 2015


Q: I want to start by asking you about your relationship with your mother. I believe you had a somewhat troubled childhood and that there was tension between …

A: Hang on! This is a bit personal, isn’t it? What are we doing here?

Q: Those were Robert Downey Jr’s very words just before he walked out on Channel 4’s interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy the other day (interview is above).

A: Oh, I’m with you now: Downey thought he was just appearing to promote his new movie  Avengers: Age of Ultron (below) and he got upset when Guru-Murthy pressed him on more personal issues, including his past use of drugs and alcohol. In fact, he got so upset, he just pulled a face, said “goodbye,” yanked off his microphone and walked out, mumbling, “it was getting a bit Diane Sawyer” — a reference to the American interviewer who tends to probe into private lives.

Q: So has Downey any right to restrict his interview to promoting his new film and refusing to talk about his private life?

A: In my opinion, anyone who is either an A-list celebrity — as Downey clearly is — or has aspirations to becoming a celeb of some distinction has to come to terms early on with the fact that they have no private life that they can keep offlimits: everything in their past and present is fair game, not just for the traditional media, but for everyone. Social media, twitter in particular, has pretty much made privacy redundant. But even before twitter started (it launched in 2006), celebrities had entered into a new kind of arrangement in which they agreed to cough up any details of their lives the media wanted to know about. And, of course, the media are our proxy: they probe because we consumers want them to probe.

Q: When did all this start then? Because I can’t imagine the Hollywood stars of the 1950s or even 1960s surrendered their right to a private life. In fact, my reading of the old stars is that the film industry kept a very tight control over the information they released to the media. What changed?

A: After the rise of Madonna in the 1980s, anyone who aspired to be famous had to stay mindful of the sacrifice she made. She may not have slaughtered an animal or child as an offering to god, but she gave up something that had been regarded as important to previous entertainers: her privacy. Had social media been around, she would have had no choice. But in the days when traditional media were dominant, she opted to start a process that would eventually turn privacy inside out. Eventually, fans, instead of relying on what the media provided, asserted themselves. But they needed assistance. Consumers have no need to depend on traditional media for information on celebrities’ lives now: they can access it for themselves; and, if they can’t do that, they will make it up. Either way, it satisfies the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: Voyeuristic impulse? You mean we take pleasure from watching other people? Are you saying that we are all voyeurs nowadays?

A: Actually voyeurism doesn’t quite catch it: it sounds too one-directional, as if one group is peeping at another through a keyhole; celebrities supply raw material to eager followers. Madonna certainly delivered a product in the 1980s, but she was forced to change. The relationship between celebrities and fans became progressively more fluid, involving a collaboration and exchange of ideas between celeb and audience (reaching an unedifying point in 2012 when Justin Bieber’s fans elected via twitter to name his penis “Jerry”). It’s difficult to imagine unapproachable, unreachable, untouchable stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and their contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, tweeting. But, if they were around in times of 360 degrees connectivity, they would be obliged to do exactly that (though probably not sharing nomenclature of genitalia).

Q: I guess twitter and Instagram have changed the way we understand privacy completely then.

A: Yes, it’s a kind of two-way situation: we follow others’ lives, but we don’t mind sharing our own. The kind of material people put on the two sites you mention would have made people shrink in embarrassment twenty years ago. But think about how relaxed everyone is about sharing what used to be called private information today. The Jerry Springer Show is one of the most important shows in television history: it really captured the zeitgeist when it debuted in 1991. Audiences could hardly believe they were watching and listening to people air their dirty linen in public, and, of course, the public was in millions. It was, in many ways, an incredible   show and paved the way for so many others, including our own Jeremy Kyle Show. We’ve become so used to eavesdropping on other people’s lives that we feel no guilt. We even discuss others’ behaviour in a way that turns us into judges. I mean that quite literally, we make moral evaluations about how other people live. That’s what I mean by the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: So I come back to my initial question. Downey: right or wrong?

A: Ah, I see you want me to make my own moral evaluation on him. Well, I think he has become such an interesting guy because of his checkered background. It looked for a while as if he would be cast out into the wilderness. In the 1990s, he was in and out of rehab and jail for drugs issues. At earlier periods in the twentieth century, this would have been ruinous for an actor, but when Downey got into trouble, audiences were not simply interested on what they saw on the screen, so his various travails made him a fascinating character. He got a part on the tv show Ally McBeal and was so good that he got big movie parts. Presumably, he’s aware that his troubled background has in a perverse way contributed to his success, but just wants to put it all behind him now. It’s understandable, though it suggests he may not quite understand that every time he’s giving an interview audiences are not just interested in his roles in Iron Man or Avengers: they’re actually more interested in Robert Downey Jr.


Q: Yo, Adrian! I see Sly has taken a job as a delivery man for Warburtons bread. I love the commercial (above), but I’m scratching my head: what on earth did the toughguy want to do this for?

A: I’ve give you a clue: five letters beginning with “m” and ending with “y.” Not that Sly is short of a few bucks. But the days have gone when A-listers thought twice about cheapening themselves by becoming pitchmen or pitchwomen for products they had probably never heard of until their agents called.

Q: I hear the total commercial, including production, cost in the region of £15 million, which includes Stallone’s fee, their ad agency’s commission and so on and so forth. Warburton’s are going to have to sell an almighty number of loaves to justify this. It hardly makes commercial sense, does it?

A: Not on the surface: customers are no suddenly going to rush out and buy Warburtons bread as a result of viewing the commercial. But advertising doesn’t worth in such a straightforward fashion. In his book Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, Michael Schudson makes a good point: “Advertising is much less powerful than advertisers and critics of advertising claim,” but qualifies this with “advertising helps sell goods even if it never persuades a consumer of anything.” He argues that a self-fulfilling prophecy operates, with key personnel tending to believe advertising works. In other words, if retailers and sales staffs think advertising works, they tend to push one product rather than another. For an ad to work, it must be seen to work.

Q: Let me get this straight. If an advertiser can design some way of not just distinguishing a product, by distinguishing it in a way that enables both vendors to stock it and consumers to confer extra value on it, then they have something like the goose that laid the golden eggs.

A: Yes. And this is, of course, where celebrities come in. Advertisers are always on the lookout for a “face of … “ some product or another, that is, someone who personifies a product or a range or products or perhaps even an entire brand. That someone might be the right match or fit for one type of product rather than another. Elizabeth Hurley was the spokesperson for and hence the face of Estée Lauder for ten years up to 2005. Presumably Lauder — which owns, among other lines, Bobbi Brown and Clinique — felt she radiated the kind of values it wanted associated with the brand. That is, until she hit 40, when Lauder replaced her with Gwyneth Paltrow, seven years her junior. Cheryl Fernandez-Versini endorses L’Oreal products. Budweiser or thousands of other products would have found little use for Hurley, Paltrow or Cheryl. Unless Bud decided to re-position its beer in the marketplace and tried to target women. This is an unlikely scenario: Budweiser knows its demographics, which is why the company often uses male artists, like Jay-Z, who are easily identifiable and embody the kind of values typically associated with an uncomplicated beer. Check out this commercial:

Q: Of course, we don’t need it pointing out, but, whatever the pitch, the appeal or the spiel, the consumer appears to get only one thing — merchandise. A celebrity’s approval might convince some consumers that they are buying something authentic, substantial or even profound. The product might be promoted as desirable and “real.” And the consumer might walk away from the store feeling like they have acquired something of genuine value. They might even believe they have taken another step toward being the person they want to be. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are buying a commodity, plain if not simple.

A: Value doesn’t exist in any pure form: products are invested with value. Think of the countless items discarded by celebrities and endowed with great value when circulated on eBay or some other exchange system. An old toothbrush, a used tissue or a worn sock become exceptional items. Most shoppers are aware that endorsed products are, essentially, the same as the generic ones: the majority of products are functionally indistinguishable. Advertising agencies are as aware of this as consumers; which is why they get paid to make those indistinguishable products distinguishable. Selecting a celebrity to advertise a product is a science, like astrology or alchemy; in other words, a nebulous, imprecise and uncertain one. The metrics are equivocal. Media visibility (exposure in print, television, radio and online) is a key factor. Hence film and television actors, tv personalities, models, sportsmen and woman, authors, musicians, comics and, of course, reality television figures are obvious candidates. Their visibility is measurable in terms of appearances and namechecks. Beyond that, the science becomes, at best, art, and, at worst guesswork.

Q: But there are some celebs, like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or George Clooney who offer instant recognition practically everywhere in the world. The cut across all demographics. This surely makes them worth it to advertisers, doesn’t it?

A: Yes, they and the likes of JLo and Angelina Jolie are among an elite of celebrities whose name or image adds value to a brand and, in turn, make products move off shelves. In this sense, they are in the same league as Michael Jordan once was. Jordan is still busy endorsing Nike products, of course, but in the 1990s he was without peers. Then along came David Beckham and showed that Jordan wasn’t a one-off: sports celebrities are sought-after endorsers nowadays. Such is the confidence of advertisers in the added value brought to a product by the imprimatur of a celebrity that Chanel No. 5, in 2004, bought the services of Nicole Kidman for just one television commercial.

Q: Advertising has moved away from the practical approach in which product information was at the forefront. But seriously: does anyone else in the world believe Kim Kardashian or any of the other celebrities are sincere when they advocate, recommend or vouch for a smartphone? Is anyone so absolutely, completely and utterly gullible that they are prepared to accept the word of a well-paid mercenary when they part with their hard-earned cash?

A: I’d probably like to say the answer to all these is an emphatic no! On inspection, though, we probably conclude that it’s no-ish. If a person who is endorsing a product is believable, what he or she says is likely to be convincing; but the fit between the two is crucial. Both the statement and its source must be believable. When advertisers scan for likely endorsers, credibility is uppermost in their minds. If consumers regard the celebrity as credible, they’re more likely to take notice of the message. Which brings up back to Sly. No one thinks he is a devoted fan of Warburtons bread (I doubt if they can get it in Californian supermarkets, anyway). But he is known by everyone, well-liked (as the boxoffice of his movies confirms) and is not known for advertising any product that pays him. I still think it’s risky advertising, but the commercial has received national publicity, which means the ad has been seen over and over again and the name Warburton’s has been on everybody’s lips. Hey, it’s even got the like of you and me talking about it. So maybe Sly is worth it, after all.


” … We have a conception of good looks and, in all probability, we want our elected politicians to look good”


Labour needs more than empathy and catchy pledges to win power - Telegraph Labour needs more than empathy and catchy pledges to win power - Telegraph

Q: Looking at the Election debate on telly last week, I got to wondering: who looks the most likely leader here? Do we judge people’s capabilities on such cosmetic features as their looks? I know this is totally superficial; that’s what made me think of you. Your arguments are usually pretty superficial. Do you think it’s possible that the way people look could influence the way we vote in the Election?
A:  We’re likely to be influenced by a candidate’s looks as we are the more substantial features, such as taxation, public spending, immigration controls and foreign policy. Looks do make a difference. Not just in politics either: whether you’re applying for a job or asking someone out, looks do matter. We might attach too much importance to good looks, but it’s a fact of life: if you have them, it’s a start in life. Physical attractiveness is an advantage.

Q: That’s a terrible indictment of today’s culture. It means that poor old Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (above, top)  who have often been likened to Wallace and Gromit (above, bottom … sorry, I mean the other way around), are starting from an immediate disadvantage. Do you have any research to back this up?                                                                                                                                                            A: Actually, I do. For a start, over ten years ago America’s NBC television recruited Dr. Gordon Patzer to assist in a minor experiment in which they got a couple of super-good-looking models to drop a file of papers in the street, just to see how quickly people rushed to their assistance. Then they got an NBC colleague (who we assume was plain looking) to do the same. “That was a classic example of everything we find in the scholarly research that we do,” said Patzer. “Those of higher physical attractiveness are automatically or immediately assisted, provided help.”

Q: Wait a minute. That’s just getting help in the street. Is that all you’ve got?                                          A: Patzer’s research goes wider: he reckons we actually trust people who are good looking. Trust is a powerful acceptance of a person: it means we take what they say as truth, without evidence or the need for further investigation; it means we believe firmly in someone. Patzer concluded: “We trust more those people of higher physical attractiveness.”  He went on: “This is something anthropologically that has existed for as long as history exists.” Even justice is not blind to beauty. Studies have shown that juries find arguments more persuasive if they’re made by attractive lawyers.

Q: Presumably, this would mean that better looking people have an edge when it comes to getting a job.                                                                                                                                                                  A: There was some research published in 2009 on this subject. People with facial disfigurement, birthmarks or scars are more likely to receive poor ratings in job interviews than people who do not have any noticeable facial marks. Professor Mikki Hebl who conducted the study explained: “Our research shows if you recall less information about competent candidates because you are distracted by characteristics on their face, it decreases your overall evaluations of them.” So flawless skin and an absence of prominent features will put you in good shape for a job.

Q: This is all very depressing. It suggests we have become a superficial society. Surely, an important political election is different.                                                                                                                         A: I wrote a blog a few of weeks back in which I referred to the impact of  John F. Kennedy, an impressively handsome man, who was the first politician to use television to his advantage. Now, this didn’t mean that every successful politician since JFK had to look like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie (below), both of whom are politically engaged, by the way. But it does mean that candidates who have faces that are liable to distract voters with particular characteristics, are at a disadvantage. Researchers at Princeton University found that voters never admit they are influenced by faces, but produced evidence to show that, in fact they were. The lesson here is that we don’t even realize how we are influenced by looks.

Angelina Jolie

Q: I’d like to think that, as we approach the Election, voters will use intelligence, analysis and an understanding of policy implications when they weigh up their options. In the cold light of day, they will, won’t they?
A: These are all factors, but, at a more basic level, perhaps at a level below our consciousness, we will be influenced by how the politicians look. We live in a culture that places a high priority on the way people look.   What counts as good looks and ugliness are culturally specific, of course; beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. In this place and in this time, whether we like it or not, we have a conception of good looks and, in all probability, we want our elected politicians to look good. All politicians are aware of this, which is why they pay attention to their dress, their hair and to how they will appear on the tv screen. They all know that their looks play a part in their ultimate success or failure. Let me return to your original question: looks will play a part in the Election.