Celebrity Endorsements are the worst. Why do so many companies use them?

Celebrity Endorsements are the worst. Why do so many companies use them?

If you spent any amount of time in front of a screen today you probably saw a celebrity endorsement. Chances are you were also completely unaffected by it. While celebrity endorsements are an extremely popular advertising technique, they are also generally ineffective.

This should feel a little odd. Advertisements with celebrities are more likely to be shared or talked about so they’re likely to have increased viewership. So what do they do wrong? Well, actually, there are a few of things. Advertisements with celebrity endorsements do achieve higher engagement than comparable non-celeb ads, but they aren’t any better at helping consumers remember the brand. Basically, celebrities draw attention to the ads, but they typically draw attention away from the product and to themselves. This is known as the ‘video vampire’ effect.

Another psychological consideration is that consumers attribute the celebrity’s endorsement to the money paid to the celebrity instead of to underlying qualities in the product itself. One assumes this is particularly true when celebrities and brands occupy very different positions in our brains and that is often the case. Rob Lowe and DirecTv, Ozzy Osbourne and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, and Penelope Cruz and Nintendo are all good examples of this. Ozzy Osbourne in particular was probably chosen because the randomness would generate buzz, but since he doesn’t share many attributes with the brand that buzz probably didn’t convert into long-term product recall or improved sales.

The inherent “otherness” conveyed by celebrity is another drag on success. Social proof states that in uncertain situations people pay attention to others who are similar to themselves for tips on how to behave. That’s why brands often include actors in their commercials who are similar to their target market. When a celebrity and a brand (or the brand’s target audience) are mismatched it feeds the wrong information to potential consumers. Think about that in the context of Gameboy and Penelope Cruz. Gameboy’s target audience is presumably young boys. Ignoring her celebrity, the message Nintendo sends by using her is that the product is for middle-aged women. That, in itself, is mistaken, but if you add in the layer that she is a celebrity you have to take the mismatch one step further.

This isn’t to say that celebrity endorsements can’t be effective. In fact, that extra step can be a good thing for aspirational marketing. But, as in Nintendo’s case, brands often make a poor choice of endorser and the advertisements are more expensive. A more careful selection of celebrity (one who doesn’t endorse anything else, will stick around for a long time, and who closely matches the existing brand identity) will help these campaigns. Audi’s Grandpa Bode commercial is one I’ve always liked because it intimately relates the traits we identify him with to the product benefits conveyed by the advertisement.

Still, even with those changes, it might not be worth it for most brands. After all, as I’ve previously written, brand mascots (e.g. Verizon’s “can you hear me now” guy, the Geico gecko, or Flo from Progressive) play a similar role for businesses and they don’t present the same worries about potential legal trouble. It’s also worth noting that non-celebrity endorsements (AKA testimonials) are effective, and cheaper than celebrity endorsements.

In summary: Celebrity endorsements are dumb, but don’t expect them to go away any time soon.

The Psychology behind Characters and Mascots

I’ve always enjoyed looking at the intersection of psychology and advertising. A particularly interesting overlap is brands’ use of fictional characters as mascots. Why did Geico invent a gecko to sell insurance, for instance? And why do they keep rolling out new commercials for him?

The common explanation is that using mascots can set products apart and help consumers identify with the brand personality. The gecko certainly helps us remember Geico, just as Mayhem helps us remember Allstate and Flo Progressive. However, individuation is far from the only reason for mascots.

In addition, two human biases underlie the success of advertising icons. On the one hand, humans have a preference for the familiar. In fact, there is a bias called the mere-exposure effect, which is the preference people display for things simply because they have encountered them before. This is no secret in the advertising world. In fact, Leo Burnett whose agency created the likes of Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Marlboro Man once said “None of us can underestimate the glacier-like power of friendly familiarity.”

The mere-exposure effect makes sense in evolutionarily terms, but it also plays out in our purchasing decisions. If you need tissues, for instance, would you be more likely to buy Kleenex or Joe Blow’s Mighty Nose Wipes? Probably Kleenex. All else equal, purchasing the familiar brand feels safer.  Indeed, the mere-exposure effect plays a large role in our otherwise nonsensical  preference for branded options over their generic counterparts. But, if our preference for the familiar is so strong why don’t companies just show the same ad over and over and why do they make changes to product lines?

It’s for the same reason most of us don’t watch the same movie day after day, or eat the same meals. Working in opposition to the mere-exposure effect is our need for the novel. We habituate to old stimuli. In a larger sense, we need stimulation and we actively search for it. In psychology this is known as sensation seeking or novelty seeking behavior. Basically, companies need to make new ads because we stop responding to the old ones.¹

When you combine the preference for the familiar with the need for the novel it becomes clear why brands use mascots. They are trying to have the best of both worlds. By putting a familiar character in a new situation you can increase the audience’s’ interest compared to running an old ad, and you’ll have the benefit of having a familiar (more liked) character. With every good commercial the brand can add more and more favorable thoughts to the character and thus to the brand itself.


  1. At least for the time being. As time goes on we get a bit more receptive to old stimuli again. This dishibuation helps when brands play with nostalgia.