Get Real

Forget the celebs. Marketers are using ordinary folks to give their ads a dose of realism

Celebrities may seem as unkillable as cockroaches, spawning endless reality television shows and still helping peddle the millions of magazines and tabloids—and yet, in this culture of overexposure, oversharing and a media that runs 24/7, they also threaten to be less special, less admired and less influential.

“Popular culture lets celebrities be transparent—and the more information you have, the less relevant they are,” explains John Colasanti, CEO of Solve, a Minneapolis agency that has put non-celebrities in campaigns for Harley-Davidson and Medifast. “If you talk to consumers, they understand celebrities have trainers and contracts and are motivated in different ways than consumers are.”

Research suggests that while celebrity endorsements can be successful given the right individual and context, it’s doubtful how effective they really are. A 2011 study by Ace Metrix of 2,600 TV ads found that on average, celebrity ads scored much lower than non-celebrity ads in terms of effectiveness. “People have told me, celebrities are surprised they can’t get hired,” says branding expert Eli Portnoy. “I know of a couple of fairly A-list celebrities who are looking for endorsement work and are just getting turned down.”

Anyone can see that advertisers haven’t abandoned celebrities altogether. And yet, even brands that are still starstruck are being more judicious—employing stricter morals clauses, for example. That desire for greater due diligence has given rise to new businesses such as fanDNA, a joint venture of PMK*BNC and Interpret that matches brands with celebrities based on their social media activity and consumers’ attitudes. “It’s not just, how many Twitter followers do they have? We’re getting into a lot of detail,” says Chris Robichaud, CEO of PMK*BNC.

Last year, Q Scores Co. saw growth of 10 percent to 15 percent in proprietary studies that match brands to personalities, says evp Henry Schafer. “That kind of research is much more prevalent and important than ever before,” Schafer says.

Those in the endorsement business insist there’s been no decline in their business. They say that as the economy has improved, brands are returning to celebrities, which they see as a safe harbor and a way to be heard through the marketing ruckus. As for those studies in which the public insists it isn’t swayed by celebrities, Robichaud of PMK*BNC contends that “subconsciously, they want to be like them—it’s how we all are wired.”

One point of agreement is that the definition of celebrity has become broader with the rise of reality stars. “There are velvet ropes to see Guy Fieri—they are the new celebrities,” says Portnoy. Adds David Reeder, vp of Los Angeles-based personality licensing firm GreenLight: “The endorsement areas have expanded. If you talk to talent agencies, their rosters have exploded.” The appeal of these emerging stars is that they’re cheaper than established names and can be very targeted.

The strategy isn’t always a winning one. When Sears introduced its Kardashian Kollection last year, the line failed to deliver the retailer a much-needed boost.

Grey’s Myhren tracks the anti-celebrity trend back to the Clinton sex scandal, which took overexposure of and disillusionment with the famous to a whole new level. It was helped along by the rise of digital media and the explosion in transparency and user-generated content it enabled.

“People are taking control,” Myhren says. “Everybody can film themselves now. That immediately opens you up for user-generated content. Whether it’s on YouTube or Facebook, we’re so used to seeing less professionally done movies. Because we’re used to seeing things that are less slick, it becomes more acceptable for advertisers to do that. Because of how companies are becoming more and more exposed because of the digital age, part of this trend is that we’re going to make our communications a little more real, a little more honest.”

Despite its ill-fated relationship with Tiger Woods and Bierley’s comments about the pitfalls of celebrity pitchmen, Buick still turns to celebrities now and again, among them Shaquille O’Neal. “We’re trying to build a relationship with people,” Bierley says. “People still spend money. But making more responsible choices is more of what’s happened in the past couple of years. Transparency is a much greater issue.”

While it may be on the upswing, the use of ordinary people in advertising has its limitations. The conceit doesn’t always work—especially when a script or acting is involved, Myhren points out. Then, there’s the instant-recognition factor celebrities will always bring to the table.

For better or for worse, celebrity endorsements are here to stay. “When you use celebrities, it’s always a little bit risky,” Schafer says. “But the rewards can be greater thanthe risks.”

Find out What Real People Think Of Ads Starring Real People here.