Man of the Moment

On a recent sunny afternoon in Orlando, the NBA’s newest superstar endorser, Yao Ming, got some tips from Peyton Manning. During a break from filming a Gatorade spot, the Indianapolis Colt quarterback tossed a football to the 22-year-old Chinese basketball star. As the Houston Rockets center awkwardly tried to return Manning’s perfect spiral, it became clear there is one game Yao has not yet mastered.

“He sort of pushed the football at Peyton. Peyton came up to him, showed him how to hold the ball, how to put his fingers on the laces and throw. It was a father-and-son-like moment,” says creative director Geoff Edwards of Element 79 in Chicago. “Everyone on the set was touched. In Yao coming to the U.S., there are a lot of things he hasn’t experienced.”

But since the No. 1 draft pick joined the NBA last fall, he’s had more than the average experience as a spokesman. His star turn for Gatorade, which breaks in April, follows a blockbuster debut on the Super Bowl in Visa’s “Yo, Yao” spot and a pairing with Verne Troyer for Apple. The ads have run heavily in the last month, giving Yao the exposure of a lifetime.

“He’s an exceptional athlete with global appeal and is really connected with American fans,” says Andrew Harrow, marketing communications director for Gatorade, which signed Yao to a multiyear deal. “Who doesn’t love this guy? He’s the real thing. He’s not just hype.”

Star athletes and advertising go back a long way. Photos of baseball players were placed on trading cards and packaged with cigarettes at the turn of the century. Now, the face of a brand need hardly be an idol, nor even atop the Q ratings—witness the motley crew of current spokespeople, from shoplifter Winona Ryder to the much-maligned Carrot Top. What makes a celebrity a sought-after spokesperson?

Finding that perfect star can be as simple as latching onto popularity, then ensuring the image fits the concept. (Approval from the star is not always simple. “You could write a spot for Sting and two months later you’re on the set with Al Yankovic,” warns Don Schneider, ecd at BBDO New York.) New Chrysler star Céline Dion, for example, has a Q rating of 26 (the average performer’s is 17), according to July/ August 2002 numbers from Marketing Evaluations Inc. And she lends the brand an image of “sophistication, refinement and family orientation,” says Bonita Coleman Stewart, director of Chrysler marketing communications.

Four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has a slightly lower Q score, 22, but his tenacity scores with marketers. He was perfect for Temerlin McClain’s upcoming Subaru campaign because “there’s something special inside Armstrong that makes him a winner, that drives him to be the best,” says Dennis McClain, CEO of the Irving, Texas, agency. “We’re drawing a parallel between what drives Lance and what drives Subaru and the unique qualities of both.”

Armstrong replaces Paul Hogan, who starred in ads for Subaru’s Outback. The print and TV effort breaks in April and introduces the tag, “Subaru. Driven by what’s inside.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones gave T-Mobile “instant credibility” when it launched last July, says Bob Moore, co-president and ecd of Publicis in the West. Rebranding VoiceStream after it was acquired by Deutsche Telekom was like “changing Nike to the Athena brand,” he says. “What Catherine allowed us to do was go into [new markets] and leap-frog over the competition. I wonder secretly, If we had the best ads in the world and didn’t have Catherine, would they have worked as well? Catherine’s celebrity is getting our ads talked about.”

T-Mobile saw a 65 percent rise in net activations in the third quarter, to 869,000, and logged more than 1 million net activations in the fourth quarter, which put it at No. 1 in the category for the second half.

Zeta-Jones replaced Jamie Lee Curtis, who gave VoiceStream a strong identity in spot markets but was deemed to have less global appeal. The playful “Freeze” campaign, which shows Zeta-Jones stopping time to help make lives better with help from T-Mobile, fits with the chutzpah of her personality, says Moore.

For some campaigns, a star on the cusp of fame can prove more effective than a name already on everyone’s lips. “When we first presented [Yao] to the client, there was some questioning,” says Jimmy Siegel, senior ecd at BBDO. “Do enough people know who he is? Do you have to see the word ‘Yao’ on his T-shirt to get the joke?”

Siegel had been following news of Yao’s journey to the NBA. “I knew he was a very curious person to a lot of America,” he says. “First he wasn’t allowed to play here; the government had to pay to get him over here. He’s seven [foot] five, but he could play, he’s not a stiff. And the fact that he comes from China makes him a global star. As soon as the commercial ran, he was voted to the all-star team and everyone started doing articles about him.”

Back in 1991, BBDO hired another little-known name—Cindy Crawford. A model had been cast for a spot showing two boys enthralled by a long-legged beauty at a vending machine. Then Schneider’s partner at the time, Lee Garfinkel, happened to flip through Crawford’s swimsuit calendar at the airport on the way to the shoot. Four days before filming was to begin, the team lobbied for a switch.

“We had seen a lot of airport calendars before, but there was something magical about every shot,” recalls Schneider. The client was eventually persuaded, and Pepsi had a marketing coup. “We caught each other on top of the wave,” says Schneider. “She became part of the vernacular at the same time she became a spokesperson for Pepsi.” In a remake of the ad last year, Crawford, now drinking Diet Pepsi, appeared with her own kids.

“If there is an art to picking the right celebrity for a brand, even more so is timing,” says Schneider. “It’s a gut feeling—and then you get lucky.”

The art of timing can include snagging a celebrity on the way down—or, at least, in some hot water. Campbell Mithun put tax evader Willie Nelson in an H&R Block spot; BBDO cast the fired Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka in a Charles Schwab ad for retirement- fund planning; Marc Jacobs signed Winona Ryder for a campaign after she wore his clothes to her shoplifting trial.

The trick, says BBDO’s Siegel, is that self-deprecation was involved, “which made [the celebrities] human.”

But what about those spokespeople who are just, well, grating? Take Kirstie Alley—her Q rating is 10, less than half that of the average celebrity. Her role in Pier 1’s “Get in touch with your senses” campaign was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, in a skit showing Alley taking her frenzied shtick a step further and kidnapping shoppers to give them decorating advice.

Alley’s in-your-face personality stands out. A Pier 1 holiday spot had the highest recall of ads aired last Nov. 25-Dec. 8, according to Intermedia Advertising Group. And Leslie Eades, client vp of marketing, says the campaign has enjoyed “exceedingly high results.” Research showed that brand awareness tripled in little over a year after the Alley campaign launched.

“We look at her as a hip, fun, funky Martha Stewart,” says Debbie Karnowsky, executive creative director of Campbell-Ewald in Los Angeles, which signed Alley two years ago, shortly after her run on the sitcom Veronica’s Closet. “It’s not as much the star power as it is making the right connection and conveying the right message.”

A spot set to break next month tempers Alley’s obtrusive behavior by showing a woman who “takes her on a bit,” says Karnowsky.

Oddball comedian Carrot Top is perhaps the most counterintuitive choice for celebrity spokesman. But he has represented 1-800-Call ATT since June 2001, and the company renewed his contract late last year. “He’s very witty, he’s good at ad-libbing and adds a lot to our creative process,” says Carol Everson, client general manager. “We felt this was the person who could deliver the number—a relatively boring message—in an entertaining way.”

1-800-Call ATT saw a 10 percent gain in market revenue share last year, says Everson, and she attributes that in part to Carrot Top, as well as to African American-targeted work with comedian D.L. Hughley. After Carrot Top’s debut, she says, “we saw results within a week.”

Young & Rubicam copywriter Ted McGagg reasons that “the clown in him” attracts the target 18-to-24 market to Carrot Top. Adds Everson: “He has a sense of approachability. The average, everyday person resonates with him.”

But the agency team is well aware of how polarizing Carrot Top can be. The physical comedy has been toned down and the comedian placed in more interesting situations. For example, says art director Stuart Garret, in a recent spot a pay phone pops out of a steaming plate of spaghetti—rather than Carrot Top himself. Work that breaks in April will spoof reality TV. “We’re taking baby steps,” says McGagg. “We keep digging around to find new places to put him and develop him as an actor.”

McGagg notes Y&R landed the account from crosstown New York shop Foote, Cone & Belding after a corporate consolidation in October 2001. “It’s about dealing with what you’re given,” he says. “It’s been a challenge. You’re given this talent and 11 seconds of copy to make a 15-second commercial, and you have to make 45 of them. Our challenge was to work with those four seconds and make them as creative as possible.”

Having inherited the account, McGagg at least can ignore some of the gibes, such as a recent poke from The Onion: “No One at Ad Agency Remembers Hiring Carrot Top for Commercials.”