The news of Bill Cosbys rape/sexual assault allegations this month is hugely surprising especially in light of his perceived fatherly image. Best known for playing Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show, Cosby became a household name and evolved into a role model, admired for his support of education and his no-nonsense talks on parenting and achievement (according to CNN).
In 1981, the director of public relations at Coca-Cola, Anthony Tortorici suggested in Black Enterprise magazine that the "three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby." Thats a very big statement about trust and an even bigger compliment to a man who is now defending himself against hard-to-believe accusations.
Although some of these allegations were first reported in 2005, Cosby has repeatedly said they are untrue - they were discredited and he has never been prosecuted. The resurgence of these allegations within the last month is unsettling and is making some of his brand partners, namely NBC and Netflix, uncomfortable, amounting to his shows being cancelled.
Cosby has partnered with many brands over his decades-long career, whereby hes endorsed products such as White Owl cigars, Jell-O, Coca-Cola and Kodak amongst others. According to Wikipedia, by 2002 Cosby had set the record for the longest continuous celebrity endorsement - for Jell-O. It was clearly a successful celebrity brand match.
But how things could change for Cosby, if he cant shake off these allegations. An article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) posted on 25 November 2014 describes how already Cosby has fallen from the third most trusted celebrity to #2,615 - and he hasnt been found guilty by the law.
The same WSJ article confirms that, Cosby started as a spokesman for Jell-O pudding in 1974 and appeared in numerous commercials until 2003. In 2010, he rejoined the brand briefly for a campaign event to launch the refreshed Jell-O logo, but no longer has a relationship with the company. Fortunately, according to Networked Insights, Cosbys problems are not affecting the pudding brand, with less than 1% of the Cosby-related social media comments mentioning Jell-O.
Trust and celebrity endorsement go hand-in-hand and endorsement is built on a persons credibility and other intangible benefits. It's this trust that often creates role models out of these famous people, and in a celebrity-obsessed society, we tend look to these role models for inspiration and leadership regarding appearance and behaviour.
But not all celebrities make good role models. Mommy blog (http://triadmomsonmain.com) released a report earlier this year naming the Top 10 best and worst celebrity role models for children. According to parents, the worst celebrities include Miley Cyrus, The Kardashians, Kanye West, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Lance Armstrong. These celebrities exhibit disrespect, inappropriate dress and behaviour, too much emphasis on sex/sexuality and appearance and make poor choices.
In contrast, good role models include the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Kate Middleton, Katy Perry and Ellen DeGeneres to name a few. These celebrities exude good qualities such as promoting a healthy body image, humility, strong work ethic, philanthropy, family values, generosity and intelligence.
Ive personally never bought into the idea that because someone famous, and more specifically someone famous whom I like, is using a specific product or service, that I should too. I understand the idea that, if its good enough for them, it must be good enough for me, but thats not why I buy a product or service. In fact, celebrity endorsement is the last thing that would persuade me. Its not authentic.
As a fan of the sitcom, Friends, I took interest in how the iconic Jennifer Aniston hairstyle - The Rachel - became the one of the most popular and most requested hairstyles of all time. Later, when Aniston became more famous she partnered with a number of brands, endorsing products such as Glaceau SmartWater. I never missed an episode of Friends and I like Aniston as an actress, but this endorsement does not influence me in any way. Even if it was available locally, I don't feel that I would rush out and buy/drink the water, just because shes the famous face backing it. In the same breath, I don't believe that those who like SmartWater, but dont particularly like Aniston, would stop drinking it.
So, how powerful are celebrity endorsements these days?
And how relevant are they when more and more, famous people are falling from their pedestal. Infamous endorsement fallouts have affected the likes of Kate Moss (cocaine addict), Tiger Woods (extramarital affairs), Michael Phelps (smoking marijuana) and Chris Brown (assault) to name a few.
An article by Grant Johnson published in Chief Marketer explains that perhaps using stars in marketing is done so frequently because it is the easier path to take. He goes on to question whom the celebrity spokespeople for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Amazon, BP, Google, Toyota and Honda are. Although these are all powerful global brands, they are not endorsed by a celebrity. He concludes, their messaging and positioning are what makes them successful and meaningful brands to their customer base.
Although celebrity endorsement might appear as the easier path to take, I believe it is becoming the more risky and more challenging path to take and I question the value of it in the future. People arent always what they appear to be. And from the list of previously mentioned high profile, so-called squeaky-clean personalities who have displayed questionable morals and poor judgment calls, I would be very reluctant to associate my brand with anyone.
A brand that can afford to pay the pricey celebrity endorsement fees surely has strong enough brand equity to rely on its own credibility, intangible benefits and messaging to gain attention and create appeal.
With more stories about the misbehaviours of supposed famous role models, I would think that celebrity endorsement might become less appealing to brands and ultimately a thing of the past.
Already back in 2011, an online article shared insights from an Ad Age article entitled, Celebrities in advertising are almost always a big waste of money. They studied the effectiveness of endorsed brands by celebrities against others and this is one of the key findings; Todays consumer is a totally different animal than the consumer of even five years ago, meaning that what was effective and influential five years ago is not necessarily so today, as todays consumer is more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network than a weak celebrity connection. Todays consumer is informed, time-compressed, and difficult to impress, and they are only influenced by ads that are relevant and provide information. They dont want to have products pushed at them, even from a celebrity. In fact, the data show that relevance and information attributes were key missing ingredients from most celebrity ads.
In its place, I see a growing shift from using celebrities to partnering with real brand ambassadors or influencers - people who have naturally chosen to use a product or service and can offer true-life testimonials. Authentic brand ambassadors are more relevant to consumers and have just as much, if not more power to influence than celebrities do.
On behalf of: Y&R SA
Contact: Michelle Cavé - PR Director
Tel: +2711 797 6300/18