The impact of celebrity endorsements on the corporate bottom line has been a source of debate ever since marketers realized that, for most people, the accolade of a famous person has more weight than the advice of one’s mother or bar buddy. The controversy arises from the possibility that a celebrity’s endorsement may, in unforeseen ways, lead to the product being undesirable. Sometimes the ad is not as clever as the admen think it is. Sometimes the celebrities do something in the middle of an ad campaign that casts a negative light on the product. At other times, an event in the distant past comes back to haunt the celebrity and thus the product. Sometimes only after time has passed does the ad seem, in retrospect, to be very, very icky.
That feeling of ickiness derives in part from the phenomenon of irony. Irony, as your English teachers told you, is the effect of a contradiction between expectation and reality. There are different kinds of irony. At play in the ads in this list are situational irony and dramatic irony. Situational irony is basic irony: the audience expects something to happen, and something completely against expectation happens. Dramatic irony has a special oomph. In this irony, the audience knows something that the subject- say the star or the advertiser- does not know; either because the star or advertiser is clueless or because the ad was published a long time before reality hit the celebrity square in the face and no one saw it coming.
15. Matthew Broderick And Honda
In 2012 Matthew Broderick and Honda parodied Broderick’s seminal Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in a Superbowl commercial. Broderick gets into a Hondo CR-V and drives around the city doing things like singing on a parade float and evading the prying eyes of the film producer he called in sick to.
The irony is that one day in 1987 in Ireland, life had proved to be moving a little too fast for Broderick. While driving on a country road in a BMW with then girl-friend Jennifer Grey, Broderick hit a car head on, killing the driver and her mother. The cause of the accident is unclear: the roads may have been slick because of rain. As well, Broderick, driving in unfamiliar territory, may have become confused and started driving on what in Ireland was the wrong side of the road but in America would have been the right side of the road.
14. Vince Neil And Kia
2012 was the year of tasteless Superbowl car commercials. Kia’s version included shots of Vince Neil and his band Mötley Crüe. Back in 1984, the sodden Neil crashed his Pantera into an oncoming car while doing 65 mph in a 25 mph zone. He killed his own passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, and caused brain damage in the two people in the other car.
In the 2012 commercial, the driver in the car gives a knowing nod to Neil. Since Neil had two more drunk-driving convictions since the 1984 accident, that knowing nod comes across less as dude-bonding and more as an acknowledgment about Neil’s past: if you see this headbanger driving towards you, get the hell off the road.
13. James Dean And Warner Brothers/Highway Safety
In 1955-56, the Warner Brothers film studio produced an hour of television on ABC. Warner Brothers Presents consisted of three series running through one time-slot. During that time-slot, Warner Brothers also ran a segment called “Behind the Camera,” which were promotional documentaries about Warner Brothers movies. Two of those movies at this time were James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. The latter of the two films was still in production that summer of 1955 with current superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and the newly famous James Dean. As part of the documentary, actor Gig Young interviewed James Dean in costume as Giant‘s Texas ranch-hand character, Jett Rink.
Warner Brothers knew that its brooding new commodity loved track racing, so it had banned Dean from race-car driving during production. Not surprisingly, Young focused on Dean’s love of racing, but he also prompted Dean to talk about the dangers of speeding on highways. James Dean ended the interview with the ad-libbed admonishment to America’s youth, “Take it easy driving — the life you might save might be mine.” Dean died September 30, 1955, when a Ford Coupe turned left in front of Dean’s Porsche 550 on the Los Angeles-Salinas highway and the two vehicles collided. Warner Brothers decided not to run this segment of “Behind the Camera,” but it lives on via the irony-loving Internet.
12. Jessica Simpson And Weight Watchers
People who have never been pregnant (some women and all men) may not realize this, but women are supposed to gain weight during their pregnancies. After squeezing the baby out, however, many women want to lose the weight they have gained ASAP. Some of those women turn to organizations such as Weight Watchers. Pregnant celebrities have the extra bonus of actually being paid to lose weight.
After the birth of her daughter in 2011, pseudo-actor/singer and reality star Jessica Simpson was eager to (1) lose weight and (2) make money. Weight Watchers was happy to oblige her to the tune of, reportedly, $4 million. Simpson, who had been ballyhooing her pregnancy as though she had invented pregnancy, wanted to ballyhoo her weight loss. Her urge to multiply overcame the urge to make millions, however. Two months after announcing she was on the Weight Watchers diet, Simpson announced that she was pregnant. Women are not supposed to lose weight while pregnant. Oops.
She gave birth to her son in 2013 and has subsequently lost weight at a decidedly non-Hollywood pace. Her rollercoastering mass has proven to be a godsend for her fashion business. “I have been every size there is,” she says bluntly. She has had maternity lines, plus-size lines and workout lines.
11. Hulk Hogan And Hulkster Microwaveable Burgers
Hulk Hogan is most recently famous as the co-destroyer of Gawker. Over his long career as wrestler and celebrity, Hulk Hogan has been involved in many other questionable money-making enterprises. Once he missed out on the endorsement of a portable grill that healthfully drained body bursting fat. After the George Foreman Grill made the old-time boxer famous again, Hogan jumped in with another kitchen appliance, the Thunder Blender.
He subsequently sold his soul to Wal-Mart and put his nickname behind a line of microwaveable meat patties. For those health nuts who scoffed at the red meat of the Hulkster Cheeseburger, Wal-Mart offered the Hulkster Chicken Sandwich. Both of these food-like stomach-fillers came packaged in cellophane and included buns. Yum!
10. Pope Leo XIII and Vin Mariani
Roman Catholics are known for offering real wine during their weekly reenactments of the Last Supper, rather than the grape juice served by other teetotalling Christian sects at their church ceremonies. Surely, though, there are limits to the love of stimulants? Not for Pope Leo XIII, who headed the Catholic church from 1878 to 1904. His beverage of choice was Vin Mariani, a French concoction that combined cocaine and wine. The blend creates cocaethylene, a chemical with all the buzz of cocaine but twice the “euphoria.” No surprise, then, that Vin Mariani’s fans were enthusiastic.
Leo XIII supposedly carried a tipple of Vin Mariani around with him. In a burst of euphoria, he awarded inventor Angelo Mariani a gold medal. With that medal came newspaper ads featuring the holy father’s smiling mug.
9. Gary Glitter and British Rail
Gary Glitter was an icon of the glam rock era of the 1970s. His chart-toppers included “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am)” and “Rock & Roll” (parts 1 and 2). He spend his waning years in an Isle of Wight prison for the sexual exploitation of minors in Vietnam and UK. As he languishes, consider his series of advertisements for British Rail’s Young Persons Railcard. The ads aimed at promoting rail travel for youth by offering discounted fares.
Glitter did a few of these photo ads, but one in particular stands out having a stronger “ick factor” than the others: Glitter leering over a jar of cold cream while proclaiming his interest in young persons.
8. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Milk
The child stars from Full House were transitioning from their teenybopper stage to the adult stage, and in the midst of this transition they did an ad for the Milk Processor Education Program. Their “Got Milk?” ad shows them sporting milk moustaches while they pose their lanky bodies for the camera. The ad’s small print reminds teenage girls that calcium is important for managing the growth spurts of their young fans.
7. Michael Phelps and Kellogg’s Cereal
The development of Kellogg’s cereals rose out of the late nineteenth-century health craze that coincided with a shift towards heavily-marketed packaged foods. Fast-forward to 2009, when man-dolphin Michael Phelps signed a $500,000 deal with Kellogg’s. Although his record-setting 23-Olympic gold medal haul still lay in the future, Phelps was accomplished enough for Kellogg’s to want to put his image on their Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes boxes. This endorsement strategy followed the tradition of featuring sports heroes on cereal boxes as a way to promote cereal’s dubious health benefits.
A different kind of health movement, however, caught Kellogg’s by surprise when Phelps was photographed smoking pot. Phelps was suspended by USA Swimming for three months, and Kellogg’s said goodbye to Phelps. The Internet celebrated by offering alternative cereal box images of Phelps partaking in that highly popular medicinal substance.
6. O.J. Simpson and Hertz
OJ Simpson was a spokesperson for Hertz Rental Cars from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. In the first of the Hertz-Simpson TV ads, the formally dressed football player is running through an airport, blazing down escalators and leaping over handrails. Where is he going? Why is he in such a hurry?
In a few other commercials, it looks as though a camera is flying above the cars he is driving, as though someone is tracking Simpson’s every move on the road. It’s like the whole world is watching him and wondering what he is going to do next.
In a commercial from the 1980s, Simpson offers a signed football as a gift for Hertz customers. I wonder how much that signed Simpson memorabilia is worth nowadays. I wonder if Simpson would want to get back something like that if he found out that someone had a bunch of it in a Las Vegas hotel room. So many unanswered questions.
5. Johnny Rotten and Country Life Butter
Johnny Rotten has moved on with his life since he left the Sex Pistols in 1978. He moved to the United States, he started a new band, Public Image Ltd., and he took a new name, well, his original one, John Lydon.
Among these alterations to his public image was his 2008 video advertisement for the English butter brand Country Life. In the ad, he gaily waves a British flag, reads a newspaper in a tweedy gentleman’s club, and makes toast.
What has happened to the man who brought the world “Anarchy in the UK”? Has Lydon been taken out of the fridge and softened? Likely not. Someone threw a glass at him during a concert in Chile this August, so things may be business as usual.
4. Kate Moss and Dior Addict Lipstick
Kate Moss’s famous doe-eyed, wan face has graced advertisements since the early 1990s. Her protruding cheek and hipbones have had a lot to do with that well-known modelling diet called coffee and cigarettes. Moss mixed in two other effective metabolism boosters: cocaine and heroin.
She has managed to be a drug and alcohol addict for much of her successful career, so it’s no surprise that one day the two most important activities in her life would dovetail. This happened during the 2011 Dior Addict lipstick campaign. In a voiceover at the end of the Duran-Duran-scored video ads, Moss mumbles, “Dior Addict. Be iconic.” Hmm. Maybe she’s actually saying “Be ironic.”
3. Lance Armstrong and Any Sports-Related Endorsement He Ever Did
Lance Armstrong’s unsportsmanlike misdemeanors have been advertised far and wide by now. Armstrong had been the cycling industry’s wet dream. Not only was he an American cyclist, but also he was a cancer survivor. After years of rumours, the
United States Anti-Doping Agency revealed in October 2012 that it had strong evidence that Armstrong had taken performance-enhancement drugs en route to his seven Tour de France victories.
Who dropped Armstrong? Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Oakley, FRS, Trek Bicyles, Easton-Bell, RadioShack, the (former) Lance Armstrong/24 Hour Fitness Sport gyms, and most ironic of all, the Livestrong Foundation that Armstrong helped found. He lost millions and millions of dollars. The cost of his loss of face and respect? Priceless.
2. Oscar Pistorius and A*Men Pure Shot Perfume
It’s bad enough when your celebrity frontman is convicted of shooting his girlfriend to death. Cancelling those contracts can be a bitch. It’s even more galling, however, when the rationale for selecting the celebrity itself doubles the ironic whiplash. Thierry Mugler said that his blade-footed spokesperson for A*Men: “is defined by his interior strength and his desire to conquer. . . . Oscar Pistorius possesses the masculine values which Thierry Mugler holds so dear.” Oh dear.
And it’s triply more galling when the product name refers to the crime that made the spokesperson unspeakable. Pistorius was used to market a special version of A*Men that coincided with the 2012 Olympics. This perfume was called “A*Men Pure Shot.”
1. Michael Jackson and Pepsi
When Pepsi landed Michael Jackson as a spokesperson in the 1980s, little did it know how closely tied it would forever be to the erratic genius. By the same token, little did Jackson know how much that advertisement filmed in January 1984 would shape his future. During the filming of the concert-video style commercial, a planned pyrotechnic went awry and his hair caught on fire.
During the trial surrounding his death, testimony revealed that the pain caused by the third-degree burn to his scalp led him towards his addiction to painkillers. Addiction to painkillers was cited as a contributing cause to his death in 2009. The irony lies in the fact that Jackson did not like to drink Pepsi.
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