Now Isn’t the Best Time for Aspirational Celebrity Marketing

Tips on using influencers in our time of coronavirus crisis

Hollywood sign
Plenty of people wish Hollywood would social distance itself from the planet.

Key insights:

In normal times, celebrity spokespeople help boost sales by imbuing brands with their winning personalities and desired attributes. The strategy, tried. The results, true.

These are not normal times.

As people across the country are stockpiling supplies, losing their jobs and grappling with the anxiety of an unknown future, resentment toward the nation’s A-list actors, athletes and musicians seems to be building. Much of what makes celebrities alluring—their power, wealth, health and beauty—has quickly become repugnant.

“In times of crisis, people tend to regress a level or two on the Maslow hierarchy,” said Stephen DiMarco, chief digital officer, Kantar. “Basic needs take precedence over psychological needs and self-actualization. So, the formula of using a celebrity to personalize a brand misses the mark when people are more worried about themselves and their families.”

Several celebrity-driven ad campaigns scheduled to debut this spring have now been delayed and potentially canceled, according to Megan McMahon, vp, The Marketing Arm, an agency that connects brands with celebrities and influencers.

“There are plenty of brands looking at those campaigns from a different perspective to see if they will work in a post-COVID-19 world,” McMahon said. “Only time will tell.”

“There are plenty of brands looking at those campaigns from a different perspective to see if they will work in a post-COVID-19 world. ... Only time will tell.”
Megan McMahon, vp, The Marketing Arm

The last thing any brand or celebrity wants right now, she added, is to come across as trying to exploit what’s happening in the world.

The newfound bitterness for celebrities has largely stemmed from the perception that they’re receiving preferential medical treatment, implying that their well-being is more important than the well-being of individuals without a significant following on Twitter.

In recent weeks, for example, many people on social media, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have questioned why coronavirus testing appears readily available for NBA players, but not for regular Americans exhibiting symptoms.

Media outlets from BuzzFeed to Fox News have also published stories highlighting moments of celebrities offering tone-deaf commentary on the current situation, such as when Vanessa Hudgens came across as rather uncaring about the severity of the coronavirus. The actor and singer said during an Instagram live video: “Even if everybody gets it—like, yeah, people are gonna die, which is terrible, but, like, inevitable.” (Hudgens later apologized.)

And then there’s that much-derided, poorly executed all-star rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” featuring Gal Gadot and friends Jimmy Fallon, Natalie Portman, Zoë Kravitz, Will Ferrell and others. “Possibly the most cringeworthy thing ive seen,” reads one comment left on Gadot’s post. “Imagine there’s no possession? Can i move into your house?”

“While people normally enjoy celebrity voyeurism, we’ve seen the opposite in times of crises,” said DiMarco, who compared the current state of society to a raw nerve with heightened sensitivity. “It creates an us-versus-them dynamic where privileged celebrities appear out-of-touch with us plebeians.”

For brands looking to partner with prominent figures in the near future, industry experts argued it can still be done. The message, however, must be thoroughly vetted and the campaign should include some form of charitable donation or another concrete action that helps the nation get back on its feet.

“Right now is a great time for brands to look to celebrities who have traditionally been involved with good causes and been positive role models in society outside of their celebrity work,” said Doug Shabelman, CEO, Burns Entertainment, a celebrity marketing agency. “There are a lot of people to choose from in that regard, but you have to be careful because you don’t want to lose your messaging and have it seem as if you’re just trading on a celebrity right now without utilizing it for the better good.”

Still, not all celebrities are currently drawing ire from the public. Shabelman and his colleague, Marc Ippolito, president of Burns Entertainment, pointed to John Legend’s live-streamed concert from home as a positive example of a famous person attempting to entertain and inform in a natural, unforced way. Another expert noted that Rihanna gave $5 million to various organizations involved with coronavirus relief efforts through her foundation.

Kantar’s DiMarco stressed that, at present, brands need to stand for safety, reliability and compassion. If they want to include a famous actor or musician in the effort, he added, the celebrity must serve as the vehicle for the brand’s message, as opposed to the message itself.

@hiebertpaul Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.