Celebrities Can Be Key to Creative Collaborations

NEW YORK The power of celebrity endorsements is undeniable, according to marketers and celebrities who participated in a panel today called “Stars of Madison Avenue: The Business of Celebrities.” So much so that the use of famous people in advertising not only shows no signs of waning, but will evolve into treating celebrities as “creative collaborators,” not vendors, said Diego Scotti, vp of global advertising for American Express.

Scotti was on the panel discussion at the Pierre Hotel in New York and moderated by Adweek columnist Barbara Lippert, an event that was part of the Advertising Week celebration in the city. Others on the dais included Star Jones, of ABC’s The View; Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill; Jim McDowell, vp of marketing for BMW North America; Kurt Graetzer, CEO of the National Fluid Processor Promotion Board made famous by the “Got milk?” campaign; model Christie Brinkley; and Larry Miller, president of brand Jordan for Nike.

Scotti talked about how the ad strategy of American Express has evolved from the 1960s and 1970s when actor Karl Malden, then playing a detective on TV, spoke about the protections against theft of American Express travelers checks. Author Robert Ludlum appeared in the “Do you know me?” campaign, which used various famous people whose names were more recognizable than their faces. The campaign ran 12 years.

As credit card competition became more intense in the 1990s, AmEx employed a new celebrity strategy using Jerry Seinfeld in situations in which the card could be used to a consumer’s advantage for everyday purchases.

Scotti said AmEx and other advertisers have moved into the area of creating entertainment rather than using entertainers simply for ads, adding that the company hopes to create content in which celebrities are treated as “artists in residence,” with their brand message iwrapped in the content of an entertainer’s song, performance or brand image.

That tactic was in evidence in the series of short films BMW created in part with Publicis Groupe’s Fallon in Minneapolis. McDowell showed the one in which Madonna was directed by her husband, Guy Ritchie. Taking the diva role to the hilt, Madonna verbally abuses everyone around her, including the driver of the BMW in which she is a passenger.

The payoff comes when the speed and controlled handling of the vehicle land the star on her back on the red carpet.

“We believe the car is the star,” McDowell said. “But without a doubt, we believe entertainment is what we’re doing here. Having exciting people in the spots makes it all work.”

After the eight-minute film, Star Jones remarked that she is often asked to identify the celebrity guests on “The View” with the biggest attitude. She declined but said such behavior is unusual. “The bigger the celebrity, the nicer they are,” Jones said. “It’s usually the C-level, just-got-off-The Apprentice type that we have trouble with.”

Jones, who is an endorser for Payless Shoes, said she insisted that her contract not demand that she wear the shoe brand in public at all times because her audience knows that when she wears them, “It’s because I choose to,” not simply because she’s getting paid.

That comment led Dorothy Hamill to concur that she only agreed to endorse products she actually used such as Healthy Choice. If someone isn’t comfortable with doing an endorsement, they shouldn’t, she said, because the audience will be able to tell.

Graetzer showed a flurry of “Got Milk?” print ads, saying that the brand does as much for the celebrities’ images as it does for milk. “It’s certainly not the money,” he said, referring to the nominal fee they are paid. Graetzer said celebrities such as Ron Howard, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Muhammad Ali actually asked to be in the campaign.

The first flight of print ads in the campaign used people like Brinkley (who was in the very first ad), Isabella Rosellini and Lauren Bacall and later included rock group Kiss, Jon Bon Jovi, Oscar de la Hoya, Spike Lee and Whoopie Goldberg.

“We had to make milk cool and contemporary and convince people that it wasn’t just for kids.”

Graetzer said that the campaign recently shot its 200th celebrity print ad, with actress Lindsay Lohan.

Miller talked about how Nike evolved the Jordan athletic line of shoes and after Michael Jordan’s retirement from basketball and subsequent return. He showed spots from Wieden + Kennedy in New York, which depicted the first Air Jordan commercial for the Air Jordan 1 shoe 20 years ago that featured Jordan and Spike Lee, then a fledgling director, who created the character Mars Blackmon for the campaign.

“Twenty years later, we’re introducing the Air Jordan 20 in February,” Miller said. The key to Nike’s brand success was once explained to him by Phil Knight, Miller said.

Knight told him three components were necessary for a Nike shoe to be a big seller: the product must represent what the brand is about, it must have an association with the right athlete, and it must have the right ad campaign. All three are represented in the Jordan brand, he said, which developed the concept of Team Jordan after the basketball player’s first retirement. Jordan himself selected athletes like Derek Jeter and Roy Jones Jr. to appear in the ads.

“We have a young consumer target,” Miller said. “And with Michael over 40 now, we also need to stay relevant.”

The event was hosted by The Advertising Club and TV Land; the sponsors were: MSN, Foote, Cone & Belding, Arnold, The Albert Co., and Adweek.