Wed, Jun 25, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Celebrity sells

In the era of the human billboard, it’s becoming harder to tell where the star ends and the pitch begins

By Julie Creswell  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Singer and model Rihanna in a print ad for CoverGirl.

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Early last year, marketing executives at Totes Isotoner, a Cincinnati company that had spent the previous 30 years churning out a reliable lineup of humble umbrellas, crowded around a computer and listened to a teenage singer from Barbados named Rihanna breeze through a tune titled, appropriately, Umbrella.

The song, not yet released, had commercial, jingle-ready lyrics and a stick-in-your-head hook: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.” Totes, which hadn’t deployed celebrity endorsements since the former NFL quarterback Dan Marino hawked its gloves more than a decade earlier, was smitten. Umbrella became a corporate rallying cry, with the song drifting through Totes’ offices at all hours.

Rihanna and her representatives wanted Totes to do more, however, than merely use her to peddle a product. They wanted Totes to create customized umbrellas featuring sparkly fabrics and glittery charms on the handles — all recommended by the emerging star and her team. Totes also guaranteed the singer a percentage of the sales of the umbrellas.

Umbrella went on to become a huge, Grammy-winning hit. And Totes, although it declines to discuss sales data, describes its relationship with Rihanna as “invaluable.” The company, which had never tried such a sweeping design shake-up before, says it now reaches younger shoppers and that traffic on its Web site — which links to Rihanna’s own site — has soared.

AUTHENTIC CONNECTION

“We’ve worked hard to build me and my name up as a brand,” Rihanna says. “We always want to bring an authentic connection to whatever we do. It must be sincere and people have to feel that.”

But where the star ends and the product and pitch begin has grown less and less discernible in the era of the human billboard.

These days, it’s nearly impossible to surf the Internet, open a newspaper or magazine, or watch television without seeing a celebrity selling something, whether it’s umbrellas, soda, cars, phones, medications, cosmetics, jewelry, clothing or even mutual funds.

Nicole Kidman sashays in ads for Chanel No. 5 perfume. Eva Longoria, the bombshellette star of Desperate Housewives, sells L’Oreal Paris hair color. Jessica Simpson struts for a hair extension company, HairUWear, and the acne skin-care line Proactiv Solution. And Jamie Lee Curtis spoons up Dannon Activia yogurt while promoting environmentally friendly Honda cars.

Using celebrities for promotion is hardly new. Film stars in the 1940s posed for cigarette companies, and Bob Hope pitched American Express in the late 1950s. Joe Namath slipped into Hanes pantyhose in the 1970s, and Bill Cosby jiggled for Jell-O for three decades. Sports icons like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods elevated the practice, often scoring more in endorsement and licensing dollars than from their actual sports earnings.

But over the last decade, corporate brands have increasingly turned to Hollywood celebrities and musicians to sell their products. Stars showed up in nearly 14 percent of ads last year, according to Millward Brown, a marketing research agency. While that number has more than doubled in the last decade, it is off from a peak of 19 percent in 2004. (Hey, it could be more extreme: Celebrities appear in 24 percent of the ads in India and 45 percent in Taiwan.)

Starlets and aging rockers are likely to continue popping up in ads for a very simple reason: Celebrity sells. If consumers believe that a certain star or singer might actually use the product, sales can take off.

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