Research Findings , , , , ,

The myth of the celebrity

Justin Timberlake, celebrity

A recognized face won't necessarily help sell products or change behavior.

World Lung Foundation is privileged to work within the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use to support governments in running anti-tobacco advertising. One challenge we encounter in almost every country we work in is preconceived notions about which types of messaging will work to motivate behavior change in smokers and non-smokers. People often derive notions of what makes a successful campaign from recalling ad campaigns they noticed or liked. It’s a natural impulse–why shouldn’t we model our campaign on Justin Timberlake’s latest Coca-Cola commercial? 

Given the visibility and recall of celebrity campaigns, it’s difficult to convince those who are new to social marketing that campaigns people like, or even remember, aren’t necessarily the ones that make them change their behavior. So I read with fascination a recent study that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of using celebrities in sales marketing. To quote Ace Metrix, the advertising research company that studied more than 2,600 ads airing in 2010 in the United States:

“In our data, whether or not a celebrity endorses a product was unimportant in determining whether an ad resonated with viewers. In fact, when compared with industry norms, relatively few celebrity ads were able to earn performance marks above their industry averages.”

The study, “Celebrity Advertisements: Exposing a Myth of Advertising Effectiveness,” acknowledges the popular conception that celebrities resonate with audiences, creating linkages to the campaign message. In actuality, the most important factors are the relevance of the message itself and the vehicles that carry it. Using celebrities as a messaging vehicle can be done well, the report shows, but it requires careful attention to management of the core message and to the potential downsides of using celebrities, such as high fees and concern for their own images.

I’ve printed out this terrific Ace Metrix report, and I imagine it will get dog-eared as I drag it from meeting to meeting with governments working on tobacco control advertising. It will be a useful tool for reinforcing to our many stakeholders that celebrity advertisements, while attractive at first glance, have pitfalls that can jeopardize the impact of any campaign, whether it’s selling sodas or convincing viewers to change their behavior around smoking.

Time and again, tobacco control social marketing research has shown that celebrities may draw attention to anti-smoking campaigns, but they aren’t as good at convincing people to quit smoking, compared with ads that graphically depict the health harms of tobacco use. This latest study will prove useful especially in environments where we are working with partners to air hard-hitting social change campaigns for the first time. Meanwhile, WLF has assembled a gold mine of adaptable, effective tobacco control ads that have proven effective across multiple cultures . I’d rather invest our resources ensuring that these excellent ads get in front of the right audiences, instead of building new campaigns that require dealing with celebrity baggage.

Steve Hamill is Associate Director of Communications and Advocacy at the World Lung Foundation.