Why CeraVe, Velveeta and Bottega Veneta Are Putting the Paparazzi on Speed Dial

Celebrity walk shots are further blurring the line between marketing and entertainment

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While some A-listers shirk the paparazzi, others accept that the press pack are part and parcel of show business. Some celebrities even stage their own photoshoots, inviting photographers to capture seemingly candid moments and shop them around the tabloids.

Now, advertisers including Velveeta, CeraVe and Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta are taking a leaf out of the celebrity paparazzi playbook—blurring the lines between the worlds of marketing and entertainment.

In early April, actress Julia Fox debuted hair dye product Velveeta Gold at a New York Knicks game. Naturally, a paparazzo snapped her new look, and a Mail Online article swiftly followed: “Julia Fox covers her Velveeta pin curls with retro scarf while braving NYC’s 45F-degree rainy weather.”

The Kraft-owned brand hoped the photos—which captured Fox out in the wild as she’d typically be seen—would generate buzz and cement Velveeta’s status as a lifestyle brand (something it’s been working on with agency Johannes Leonardo over the past couple of years).

Immediate results showed that the plan worked. On the launch day, the stunt scored a social sentiment of 51.3% positive and 47.6% neutral, Velveeta brand manager Stephanie Vance told ADWEEK. To date, it’s clocked over 1 billion earned media impressions.

“Instead of showing up in spaces we know Julia is expected to be seen in, we wanted her to make an appearance and hijack a place that she wouldn’t typically visit,” Vance explained.

And so, the brand put her courtside at a National Basketball Association game, a place that “aligned” with its target audiences’ interests, said Vance, adding, “Julia was able to grab attention and get people talking.”

Ahead of its Super Bowl 58 spot, CeraVe also whipped the internet into a frenzy with pap shots that showed actor Michael Cera carrying bags filled with bottles of its moisturizer.

CeraVe relied on the internet gossip engine to build buzz without explaining anything. As the photos went viral and fueled online conspiracies that Cera was a skincare mogul, the stunts garnered press coverage from the likes of Page Six, People, The Cut, Us Weekly and Mail Online.

“We phased out the storytelling,” said Adam Kornblum, senior vice president and head of global digital marketing for CeraVe, at the time, revealing that in the days after the Big Game, CeraVe garnered 18 billion earned media impressions and 10 billion social media impressions with help from creative shop Ogilvy.

Content that hacks culture

For celebrity publicists, this isn’t a new practice. In the dawn of social-first media, it’s a powerful tool.

Stars have long enlisted photographers to take candid snaps of their vacation or trip to the store, usually in the name of controlling a narrative or endorsing a product.

See: Singer Grimes reading a copy of The Communist Manifesto on the sidewalk after separating from Elon Musk, or the dozens of images of Dunkin’ ambassador Ben Affleck carrying an iced coffee. In the case of the latter, the coffee chain even referenced some of these images in its Super Bowl 57 ad.

Reality TV stars Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag have admitted to setting up pap shots, while paparazzo and creator of Stupid Famous People Justin Steffman told Cosmopolitan many setup photos include a paid-for element “where a photo agency works as a middleman between a celebrity and a company who has a product to sell.”

The spring 2024 campaign from Italian design house Bottega Veneta flipped this narrative on its head. First, it dressed artist A$AP Rocky and model Kendall Jenner head to toe in its clothes, then it sent them to go about their daily lives. The resulting paparazzi photos were lifted straight for the wires, and Bottega put its logo over the top of shots from Getty Images and Backgrid.

The resulting campaign was both meta and chic. Tom Garland, co-founder of brand consultancy Edition+Partners, said the brand was speaking the language of its customers. Other brands, including Gucci, quickly emulated the deliberate paparazzi feel of the creative.

“This was content that hacked culture and made us look at the same image twice. That’s a powerful thing,” he added, although he cautioned that this trend could become “tired quick” if brands rinse and repeat it.  

For Garland’s co-founder, Christopher Morency, despite the significant expansion of platforms and touchpoints used by brands post-pandemic, prevailing tactics, formats and sales approaches in traditional brand building remain largely repetitive.

“The best brands, however, set themselves apart by redefining narrative strategies, seamlessly integrating conversion into the brand story, and by blurring the traditional lines that once separated inspiration and sales,” he added.

Beyond engagement, this is a strategy that could help drive brands’ bottom lines. Taylor Swift’s recent Bahamas holiday with footballer Travis Kelce, which was captured through a long lens, shows the potential for pap shots to drive sales.

Analysis of Google Trends data reveals that searches for “The Bahamas” increased by 351% since pictures of the duo’s holiday were published. Additionally, there was a surge of 770% in searches for “yellow bikini” following the release of a paparazzi image featuring Swift wearing one on the beach.

Speaking on the findings, Marc Porcar, CEO of ecommerce platform QRFY, said these numbers underscored the enduring allure of celebrity and its profound impact on fan engagement.

“This symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their audience reflects the power of cultural icons in shaping societal trends and consumer choices and truly highlights their influencer power,” he added.

Maybe brands shouldn’t remove tabloid photographers from their favorite contacts quite yet.