The Consumer Republic




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Sean “Puffy” Combs is planning a line of frozen foods. If all goes well, the new food line, which includes condiments and juices, will be another stream to swell the revenue pool of Brand Puffy. It’s that kind of big-picture, line-extension, will-to-branding thinking that makes the rapper/entrepreneur co-coverboy (with Jerry Seinfeld) of Forbes’ Celebrity 100, which hits newsstands today.
Lists of the 100 richest make people with money famous. Now Forbes takes on a more
complex challenge: measuring how being famous makes people rich.
Despite an empire that includes a growing chain of Caribbean-cuisine restaurants and the 150,000-circ magazine Notorious, Combs is only 19 in the power rankings. Numero uno is Michael Jordan (yawn), whose eminence as the ultimate Human Brand is so predictable the Forbes editors don’t bother to waste much ink on him. Not that his ’98 stats aren’t astounding: $70 million in earnings and a whopping 40,671 press clips, a number only eclipsed by No. 23 Mark McGwire and No. 61 Monica Lewinsky, who blows the curve with a Lexis-Nexis tally of 118,034 press mentions.
One conclusion to be drawn from the Celebrity 100 is that calculating earnings and media mentions is not necessarily an accurate way of measuring who is most famous for being famous. Like all these 100 best/most/biggest lists, the methodology is riddled with prejudices. Once you get past the obvious suspects of the top 10 (Oprah, Leonardo DiCaprio, the Spice Girls), Forbes skews the list in strange ways. Many worthy potential candidates were never under consideration. Chefs and models are rated, but fashion designers are not.
For instance, Helen Hunt makes the list, but Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t. What, no Tina Brown? (On the bright side, Madonna’s name is absent, too.) Puffy aspires to be the next David Geffen; so why isn’t Geffen on the list? Is George Bush Sr., with one measly mention on the Web, really the 100th most powerful celeb in America? A few notches above him is Robert Simonds. Does anyone without blood or professional ties to Robert Simonds have the foggiest notion who he is? (He produces Adam Sandler movies.)
But such lists, which are reaching epidemic proportions as we approach the millennium, are born to be carped at. The Forbes list is certainly a creditable stab at measuring the ineffable by counting the trail of tangibles it leaves in its wake. Celebrity is like a subatomic particle that can’t be directly apprehended and is known to us only by its effects: royalties, T-shirts, endorsement contracts. This is true of a brand as well. You can’t see it, touch it or smell it. A brand has no sensuous reality, which is why a strong one can be turned into almost anything: a perfume, a best-selling book, a line of frozen foods. Daniel Boorstin captured this no-there-there quality in his indelible definition of modern celebrity: “well-known for well-knownness.”
Sounds kinda magical, doesn’t it? It’s not.
The biggest myth about celebrity, insist the authors of High Visibility, a study of the science of celebrity making, is that fame is founded on “‘talent,’ ‘charisma,’ ‘magic,’ ‘electricity,’ ‘presence,’ ‘star qualIty.'” To the contrary, say Northwestern University professors Irving Rein, Philip Kotler and Martin Stoller, who believe celebrities aren’t discovered but bred, not born but made by a burgeoning industry
of image massagers, speech coaches and market researchers. Celebrity isn’t ineffable; strictly speaking, it isn’t even there.
Perhaps it’s not true that anyone can become famous. But as High Visibility explains, anyone has access to the machinery. And these days, everyone from real-estate agents to clergy to dentists to lawyers is playing the celebrity game. Indeed, the Celebrity 100’s concentration on entertainment and sports figures is a bit old-fashioned. Well-knownness is an unlimited resource and celebrity is a growth industry reaching far beyond the conventional factories of fame. This is why it becomes urgent to figure out who the real players are.
The real flaw in the Celebrity 100 method, however, is that it can’t measure what’s going on in the audience’s head. If a brand exists anywhere, that’s where you’ll find it. In its ranking of star power, the list inadvertently shows how few celebrities are considered a brand by audiences. Jerry Seinfeld is a brand? Too soon to tell. Arnold Palmer may have attained brandhood, but Mike Piazza? A hot product does not a brand make. Unfortunately, the products themselves don’t always realize this.
In High Visibility, the authors quote Roseanne’s assessment of her own brand power a few years ago: “It may appear as a pipe dream now,” said the erstwhile sitcom star, now host of a lackluster syndicated talk show, “but you should keep [it in mind] when I do own a network, and then you can say I said so in 1995.” Puffy, are you listening?