Falling Stars

I don’t believe Tommy Lee Jones works for a phone company. Maybe Tiger Woods’ caddy drives a Buick, but I doubt El Tigre himself tools around in one. And I don’t care what color Hanes briefs Michael Jordan wears, I’m buying boxers.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s no surprise that we are up to our plucked eyebrows in celebrity-drenched advertising. I’m sure the millions that marketers spend on star pitchers keep real estate agents in Bel-Air and the Hamptons fat and happy. I’m just as certain that it’s wasted money for advertisers.

So entrenched is the idea that celebrities are effective commercial communicators that their use has become canon, for amateur ad people as well as professionals. My ex-wife, for one, included celebrity endorsement in her ad plan for a marketing class at Cal State Northridge. For a plastic surgeon? A tony sports car? A diet drink? No. For something that cures bad breath.

Oh, yeah, that’ll work. Let’s get Jason Alexander. I’m sure he’s available, and the ex and her team only have to allocate, say, in the low seven figures for him.

I once did pro bono work for a charity that provides homes for disadvantaged kids. We kept insisting on basic block-and-tackle marketing, but all the folks at the charity wanted was to hook up with celebrities. So we did. And I have to tell you, meeting Gary Coleman was the thrill of a lifetime. Didn’t much help the charity, though.

In just a decade or so, stars have gone from refusing to do any advertising (except that $1 million gig for a magazine ad in Japan) to hawking everything from iMacs on network TV to anti-aging creams on Sunday-morning infomercials.

As an ad tactic, it’s as misplaced as a nun at the Oscars. Regular people aren’t fascinated with celebrities because we admire or like them, and certainly not because we’re influenced by them. We use them the same way the Romans used Christians in the Coliseum, the way the Pilgrims used witches, the way cats use mice.

Celebrities are not objects of influence, they’re ‘toons. Entertainment vehicles. Phantasms who, as one of them famously remarked, “transport” us, briefly, from our grind-it-out lives.

In the movie My Favorite Year, Peter O’Toole plays an aging, alcoholic action star who, in a moment of anguished honesty, cries out that he’s not that “silly hero” people watch on screen. Replies Mark Linn-Baker, the boyish everyman protagonist, “I need my heroes as big as I can get them.”

We don’t want these people to sell us anything except a character, a song or a laugh. Apart from biology, we have nothing in common with them. They’re virtually a separate species. And we sure know they get paid gazillions to pander to us.

This is not a recipe for, as they say, an efficacious outcome.

Granted, there are exceptions. But when you get behind the curtain, the hit ratio is, if anything, worse than that at your typical major movie studio. For every Air Jordan, there are dozens of misguided, mistarged or just plain misfiring celebrity spot sightings. And even the good ones invariably go bad over time.

A product pitched by a celebrity is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, selling nothing.