Selling Out Is Now In

A s those of you who have unsuccessfully courted A-list celebrities for your U.S. campaigns know, despite being offered beaucoup bucks, incredibly short working hours and ridiculously lavish perks, many of these famous folk have said no way for fear of tarnishing their images.

Yet many big stars—Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston and John Travolta, to name a few—haven’t been shy about slinking off to Japan, as well as Europe, to appear in TV and print ads and raking in hoards of cash. Just a few years ago, a Hollywood star could command as much as $3 million by spending just a few hours shooting a Japanese commercial.

But in recent years, American advertising has been looking more enticing to once-uninterested glitterati. Top-tier talents who either shunned advertising entirely or snuck abroad to sell out are warming up to the idea of appearing in U.S. ads, according to industry insiders, from the executives who negotiate the deals to the directors who shoot the spots.

Pamela Maythenyi, svp of commercial information firm Source TV, which maintains a database of more than 350,000 spots, reports that she has witnessed “a significant increase” in the number of major-league stars appearing in advertisements either specifically for—or at least seen in—the U.S. market in the last three to five years.

Some prime examples from the last year or so: Brad Pitt, who has churned out numerous ads in Japan, agreed to star in his first-ever commercial for U.S. consumption, a spot for Heineken (created in-house at Heineken and directed by David Fincher) that ran in select markets during the most public ad platform out there—the Super Bowl; film veteran Robert De Niro made his spot debut in an American Express ad out of Ogilvy & Mather in New York; formerly advertising-averse Gwyneth Paltrow signed up as spokesmodel for Estée Lauder and appeared in a global campaign prominently displayed in the U.S., including a TV spot directed by Lance Acord; and megawatt superstar Angelina Jolie became the face of luxury clothing line St. John late last year. The move marked a full-on dive into advertising for Jolie, who had dipped a toe into endorsements when she appeared in a BBDO-created Jeep campaign a couple of years ago as Lara Croft to promote her film Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. John Travolta also played a character from his film life, Get Shorty’s Chilli Palmer, in a Cadillac spot out of Chemistri Detroit to promote the movie’s sequel, Be Cool.

And those who haven’t been willing to appear in front of the camera have lent their voices to spots instead. George Clooney, who has yet to appear in an ad in the U.S. but has overseas, provided the voiceover for a U.S. Aquafina campaign via BBDO; Julia Roberts’ voice is in an AOL campaign also out of BBDO; and Robert Redford can be heard in United Airlines spots by Fallon Worldwide.

Danielle Korn, who has spent the last 20 years of her career wrangling celebrities for ad campaigns as evp, director of broadcast operations at McCann Erickson in New York, says that all of these examples serve as evidence of a marked shift of opinion amongst A-listers. “Gwyneth Paltrow is an example of someone who has turned down zillions and zillions of dollars and now took this deal. She didn’t used to want to do [advertising at all],” she says. While Korn hasn’t personally gone after Paltrow, she has signed everyone from Scarlett Johansson to Christina Aguilera to appear in McCann campaigns ranging from L’Oréal to Verizon Wireless. Korn also singles out superstar Jolie’s deal with St. John as a noteworthy indicator. “That deal blew everybody’s minds,” says Korn.

But haven’t stars always been willing to peddle high-end products, especially fashion and beauty products? “That didn’t used to matter,” Korn says. “People of their caliber still didn’t want to do these ads in the U.S.”

It isn’t just A-list movie stars who are more willing to do ads in the U.S. Rock legends are also less worried about being perceived as sell-outs. In the last few years, we’ve seen U2 rock out in an Apple iPod spot by TBWA\Chiat\Day and Sting cruise in a Jaguar ad by Ogilvy & Mather. Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin, having turned down numerous offers to license its tunes for use in ads, finally licensed its music to Cadillac in 2002.

So what’s behind this newfound willingness to hawk products in the U.S.? For starters, Americans generally don’t look down on stars for selling out anymore—they expect them to. And the more media-savvy celebrities—Paltrow among them—are hip to that reality. At the time she signed the deal with Estée Lauder, Paltrow told USA Today, “Years ago, endorsing a product was considered something a movie actress shouldn’t do, but now, having a contract is almost like a status symbol.”

Case in point: U2’s association with Apple’s iPod sure hasn’t hurt the band. If anything, the aging rockers actually upped their hip quotient with fans of all ages by appearing in the iPod ad. (The band’s multifaceted deal with Apple also included the exclusive rights to sell all songs from U2’s album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb on the iTunes Music Store and the marketing of a special U2 iPod.)

The U2-Apple deal marked “a tipping point,” in Korn’s estimation. “You have to imagine that any star had to look at that deal and think, ‘Well, if U2 could do it and maintain their credibility, [so could they],'” she says.

Stars are also finding they can’t limit the distribution, given that more and more work is made to be seen worldwide. Paltrow’s Estée Lauder campaign, for instance, is running globally, and McCann’s star-studded campaign for Intel featuring Seal and other stars was designed to play internationally. (Even if an ad is earmarked for overseas, Web sites like delight in outing stars.)

Remarkably, though, some celebrities don’t grasp the fact that there really are no secrets these days. When Source TV put a British Barclays spot starring Jennifer Aniston on its Web site in June 2004, it got a call from London’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty. “The agency called us within three seconds of it going up, saying, ‘You can’t have that! She made us swear we would never show it to anybody in the states,'” Maythenyi recounts. Source TV subsequently took the spot down.

It also seems there isn’t nearly as much work for American stars in Japan as there once was. “One of the reasons why Western celebs are used less—and why U.S. celebs may be looking elsewhere—is that in Japan in recent years, the Hollywood and U.S. celebrity has been challenged more by other celebrities,” says Jonathan Cranin, McCann’s worldwide creative director, adding that Japan is relying more heavily on homegrown talent, as well as China and Korea, these days.

So Japan isn’t necessarily the cash generator it once was for Hollywood’s elite. But in the U.S., clients are still willing to fork out outrageous cash to snare a celebrity. Top stars can earn $10 million a year for a major ad campaign, according to Cary Berman, svp, head of commercials/sports divisions at William Morris. Madonna reportedly was paid $8 million to appear in a recent Motorola spot (BBDO), and sources say that William Morris client Catherine Zeta-Jones was paid about $20 million for her multiyear deal with T-Mobile (Publicis).

Even if Zeta-Jones made half that, it’s nothing to sneeze at, given a climate where top celebs are scrambling for movie paychecks. “There are definitely fewer big-paying gigs, even for superstars,” says Bryan Buckley, a director at Hungry Man who has shot overseas spots with celebs such as Aniston and Ray Liotta.

But money isn’t everything. For Jolie, in exchange for being St. John’s spokesmodel, the clothing company has agreed to support her philanthropic efforts. William Morris’ Berman says there are other ancillary benefits; perhaps the most valuable is a chance to change or update an image. Take one of Berman’s clients, hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg, for example. The rapper recently appeared in ads for XM Satellite Radio out of TBWA\C\D and Chrysler from BBDO. In the Chrysler ad, he’s playing golf with Lee Iacocca—hardly a vision that would have come to mind if you thought of the thuggish image the rapper had cultivated in years past.

Beyond improving their images, celebrities are also more inclined to do U.S. ads these days to drum up interest in their own projects—especially considering the scarcity of money for marketing and promotion in the film and music industries. Madonna, whose record sales have sagged, took advantage of the advertising platform a couple of years ago when she did a commercial for The Gap out of Laird+Partners; the ads didn’t outwardly hawk her music but not-so-coincidentally coincided with the release of her album American Life. And Madonna did the aforementioned Motorola spot just as her newest record, Confessions on a Dance Floor, was released. Not exactly a stranger to ads—years ago, she did a Pepsi spot and was once the face of Max Factor—Madonna had long been out of the U.S. ad game when she made a commercial comeback of sorts with The Gap.

Korn says many more big-name celebs will jump onto the U.S. ad bandwagon in 2006. Refusing to name names, she teases, “I have heard about deals that are going to be happening with big names that five years ago you would have said, ‘There is no way that person is ever going to do a commercial or print ad.'”