The subliminal Lost in Translation deserves its place among my all-time favorite movies. A tale of kindred spirits, united in seeking a purpose to life through much soul-searching, Bill Murray puts in a charming performance that’s nuanced and endearing. As one of the film’s two main protagonists, Murray plays Bob Harris, an ageing movie star who’s come to Tokyo on a short stint to endorse a premium Japanese whiskey. Some of the film’s scene-stealing moments revolve around this plot thread, as we watch an unraveling Harris bow to the demands of the lucrative celebrity endorsement contract.
While these exaggerated scenes were intended to be a pastiche for comedic effect, the modern-day phenomena that is the celebrity endorsement is very serious business indeed. Open any glossy magazine and you’ll be hard-stretched to get through a handful of pages without stumbling across the latest Hollywood ingénue flogging some sort of product. The recruitment of megastars has become the de facto solution for a vast majority of brands looking for publicity, but it’s not always a guarantor of success. For every great example of a brand partnership out there, there are plenty others that are well-known for causing confusion and controversy, and more than enough to make you shake your head in disbelief. It seems no brand is immune to the allure of celebrity.
Back in the day, the holy trinity of endorsements used to consist of the three c’s: clothes, cars and cosmetics. The association with aspirational products was coveted as a hallmark of a celebrity’s star power, yet the history of advertising is littered with Bob Harris-esque examples of personalities looking to turn a quick buck in the form of an obscure foreign deal. Such product endorsements have always been attractive, because they’re likely to pay ridiculous sums, the contractual obligations are minimal, and typically, the regional nature of the target audience meant that viewership was highly localized. The product could have zero mainstream appeal, but you were safe in the knowledge that there was little possibility of the ad ever reaching shores closer to home. In the case of Bob Harris, no one other than the Japanese consumer would ever see or care about the advertising campaign for Suntory Whiskey.
These days, digital has wiped away those boundaries. The chances of any well-known persona doing a product deal in some exotic location, with the rest of the world being none the wiser is a thing of the past. Pay-to-play brand endorsements have morphed beyond conventional advertising deals, and are now cleverly disguised into the ebb and flow of online channels like Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. If anything, the immediacy of social channels, gossip columns and YouTube has helped create a new breed of celebrities playing the promotion-for-gains game under a completely different set of rules. So if you’re a well-known celebrity who has commercial gains at stake, who better to promote strategic product placement to the global masses?
Enter Mr. George Clooney, he of the Oscar-winning, Nespresso endorsing silver fox of megawatt star power. I recently came across a photo taken a while back in Venice, during what can only be described as a paparazzi fueled weekend of cat and mouse, also know as his nuptials. We often hear of celebrities who chastise the press corps for intrusion and violations of privacy, when not done on their terms. But what about when there’s something they desperately want to plug? Notice the branded t-shirt being worn by Mr. Clooney in the above photo. May I also point out that Casamigos, a premium brand of tequila, is part owned by the very man himself. An interesting choice of attire, particularly when you know the world is watching, and the captured photo images will be picked up by every publication under the sun.
Welcome to the new era of celebrity endorsements.
image credit: AKM-GSI