Perspective: Hey, Tough Guy

Nothing sells a manly man brand better than the manly man celebrity who uses it

In the long history of celebrity endorsements (Mark Twain, let us remember, was plugging Great Mark Cigars as early as 1875), brands have learned that while a famous face is the key requirement, a close second is relevance: a credible, believable connection between the endorser and the endorsed. Perhaps nowhere is that linkage more important, or obvious, than in the Macho Man genre.

You don’t need an MBA to figure this one out: If the brand in question is the sort of product that a brave, red-blooded, all-American male would use, you’d better find a brave, red-blooded, all-American male celebrity to pose with it. Case in point: The two examples here. The year (1955 or 2012) and the maletargeted product being sold (budget hooch or a luxury watch) hardly matters; the macho-man endorser delivers—tough as a legionnaire, honest as a Boy Scout.

“Versions of the male archetype will resonate with men in different ways, and here we see a similar approach across different time periods,” said Chris Raih, founder and managing director of Los Angeles-based agency Zambezi. “But the marketing recipe is proven: Both ads have only one hero, stoic and on his own. They are both seen with shoulders square, looking down the barrel of the camera. They project as extremely capable.”

You bet. In fact, back in 1955, Imperial whiskey couldn’t have hoped for a more capable man than Grancel Fitz. The most famous big-game hunter since Teddy Roosevelt, Fitz was just shy of finishing his 30-year quest to bag one species each of the 25 legally huntable large animals in North America. Armed with his Remington 30 rifle, Fitz faced down mountain lions in Utah, jaguars in Mexico and (as the inset photo in the upper right corner of this ad graphically attests) felled a grizzly in the wilds of British Columbia. When he wasn’t hunting, Fitz chilled out in his Manhattan penthouse—its walls adorned with the mounted heads of his prey—and sipped his Imperial. When a guy like Grancel Fitz proclaimed, “Man, this is Whiskey!” well, man, it sure as hell was.

Fifty-seven years later, the same reasoning has apparently gone into Breitling’s ad for its Navitimer watch—an aviation chronograph whose circular slide rule lets pilots calculate ascent rates, fuel consumption, and other hairy-chested stuff. While the brand’s choice of John Travolta might raise eyebrows on those who remember Saturday Night Fever, the truth is that the actor is a pilot with 42 years’ experience, certified to fly eight types of aircraft including the Boeing 747 and 707 (he owns a 707, in fact). It’s a little-known fact that, back in 1992, when both power systems failed on Travolta’s Gulfstream II jet, he made an emergency landing at Washington National Airport without any instruments except his compass. In the face of a life-and-death moment like that, even Grancel Fitz might have choked.

But if there is a telling difference between these ads, it’s a regrettable one. Travolta’s suffered no shortage of lurid allegations (none of which are proven) about his sexual life of late—the sort of stuff that the media of 1955, for better or worse, would have ignored. So, being a macho man is not as easy as it once was. Still, one thing’s sure: For every celeb who does a credible job of it, there’s a brand marketer out there somewhere with his checkbook open.