Avoiding pitfalls of celebrity ads

Brands which rely too much on the popularity of a sports celebrity can pay the price if things go wrong on the field – as Deutsche Telecom has found out.

As the excitement surrounding the Euro 2000 football tournament builds, so too does the attention afforded the game’s stars, both on and off the field. Top players frequently occupy both the front and back pages of national newspapers. As far as advertising is concerned, their services have never been more in demand.

Since France’s historic victory in the 1998 World Cup final, for example, team captain Zinedine Zidane has established himself as a prominent advertising personality, fronting campaigns for the supermarket chain Leader Price, Eau Sauvage aftershave, Lego, and Volvic mineral water.

There are clear advantages to be gained from linking one’s brand name to successful players or teams – but there are also dangers. Zidane’s popularity so far appears undimmed, but it is clear that over-exposure could eventually lead to diminished returns for future advertisers. Beyond this, there is the sheer unpredictability of sport.

Deutsche Telekom, for example, recently had to re-shoot a TV ad showing German team coach Erich Ribbeck in a touchline exchange with his deputy, Uli Stielike, after the latter was abruptly sacked. And though once considered the epitome of predictable efficiency, a string of poor performances has led sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz to question its involvement with the German national team.

Unpredictability of a different kind has affected Stream, the Italian pay-TV service. Ex-national team striker Paolo Rossi, having only recently fronted a campaign for Stream, last month appeared in advertising for rival channel D+. Worse still, Rossi’s script in the new campaign reveals that he had continued to subscribe to D+ while advertising for Stream.

In advertising as in football, players have freedom of movement once their contract ends, making such dangers unavoidable. But there are ways to use celebrity association which provide at least some level of insurance. Perhaps the best examples are those that go beyond simple endorsement. Eurostar’s use of Eric Cantona and Walkers’ of Gary Lineker, for instance, have drawn on qualities inherent in the player which could endure independently of events on the field.

Celebrity endorsement is an established form of advertising but it is not an excuse to curtail the creative process. It offers a starting point to explore the values embodied by the chosen personality and the ways in which these can be combined with the character of the brand, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

John Shannon is President of Grey International

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