SLY STALLONE: IS HE WORTH IT (TO WARBURTONS, THAT IS)?

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.

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