By Hunington Sachs and Robert Yallen
No doubt about it: Popularity is, and has always been, fleeting. This is particularly true in the entertainment field, where social media and the 24-hour news cycle can change public opinion so fast it would make Horace Greeley’s head spin. If you have any doubt, just ask Tiger Woods—the ultimate cautionary tale for sponsorship deals.
But how fleeting is popularity? And in the sphere of celebrity spokesperson selection, which types of celebrities are most resistant to, or most at risk for, quantum shifts in popularity?
InterMedia Entertainment (IME) launched the DR Star Index® in 2013 to evaluate and rank the advertising spokesperson potential of top personalities. The Index’s scores and rankings are based on public perceptions of these individuals in six key spokesperson attributes: Recognition, Trust, Influence, Likeability, Attractiveness, and Relevance. Analysis shows that Trust and Influence are the most critical in determining whether a specific celebrity has the potential to be effective in a spokesperson role.
Now, with two years of robust survey results, it seems an appropriate time to look back at individual Index fluctuation levels and see what patterns emerged, and whether any findings can be turned into actionable intelligence for the spokesperson selection process.
Into the Woods
During the initial stages of the spokesperson selection process, the most frequently expressed client concerns involved the potential character issues and associated risks intrinsic to this type of relationship. IME long ago established a meticulous vetting protocol to evaluate the pitfalls of each prospective endorsement deal. The process is designed to identify and assess a celebrity’s behavioral risks and balance them against the anticipated benefits of the association.
The inclusion of a morality clause in spokesperson endorsement deals is customary, and for good reason. A serious misstep by a brand ambassador can have sweeping adverse effects, not just for the personality, but also, by extension, for the brand. In such cases, brands must often act quickly and decisively to disassociate themselves from the celebrity, though terminating the relationship may not be the end of a company’s problems.
The definitive illustration for this scenario is Tiger Woods, once the world’s most marketable athlete. Woods’ multiple, extensive endorsement deals with Fortune 500 companies fell like dominoes within weeks after his excessive philandering became public.
Gatorade, AT&T, General Motors, Gillette, and Accenture quickly ended their sponsorship deals with Woods, while Nike and Electronic Arts (EA) continued to support him. The fallout for these companies was swift and devastating: A study investigating their stock prices, released a month after the scandal went public, estimated that Woods’ sponsors lost up to $12 billion in stock valuation in the aftermath. Woods’ three sports-related sponsors took the biggest hit: Nike, EA, and Gatorade lost an estimated 4.3 percent in stock value.
Youth Is Served
The DR Star Index also reveals that volatility—especially on the negative side—is often tempered by a celebrity’s age, and by extension, their foundation of accomplishments. Intuitively, this makes sense; the more established the individual, the less likely his or her reputation will take a hit from a significant misstep.
Over the past two years, the public’s perception needle has barely budged for time-honored stars such as Dick Van Dyke, Chuck Norris, Sandra Bullock, and Brooke Shields. Longtime public figures whose images have been built on negative perceptions, such as Jerry Springer and Donald Trump, have shown similar stability.
However, a sparse track record also positions rising stars to leap in popularity more swiftly than established ones. Examples of this dynamic include Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars (following his 2014 Super Bowl halftime performance), and assorted Kardashians.
Then there’s the case of Betty White, who secured the top ranking among all celebrities when she debuted in the Index in early 2014. White’s extraordinary popularity encompasses both genders and all age groups, and enables the venerable 93-year-old to go beyond the commercial roles typically associated with a public figure of her age. Instead of being relegated to pitching senior products or conservative financial services, White’s most recent advertising role is for Snickers candy bars, whose usual clientele is a fraction of her age.
IME also analyzes whether specific celebrity classifications are comparatively resistant to swings in public perception. The DR Star Index categorizes celebrities into basic groups—actors, athletes, musicians/singers, and television hosts—and examines their scores over the life of the Index for consistency.
The subset that exhibits the greatest stability is TV hosts. The majority of TV hosts are older, established personalities, so their reputations are inherently more stable, and the group demonstrates noticeably lower volatility than similarly-aged counterparts in acting, sports, and music.
This dynamic holds true regardless of whether they host news-related programs or game shows. Celebrities in the latter subset such as Alex Trebek, Bob Eubanks, and Bob Vila have stability matching news-based counterparts such as Joan Lunden and Larry King.
All of these celebrities consistently receive high marks for Trust and Influence, and many have proven to be first-rate advertising spokespeople for a variety of products and services.
Given the vagaries of human nature, the risks need to be mitigated to the fullest extent possible.
The type of role for which a celebrity is best known can also temper volatility. This is especially significant for actors, as landing the role of a lifetime can cement a glowing public image, even decades after the role ends.
Henry Winkler still lives off the enormous equity generated by his Fonzie role on Happy Days—undeniably one of the most admired and beloved TV characters of all time. The dynamic is similar, although not as strong, for other actors, including Courteney Cox, Alan Thicke, and Adam West, the original TV Batman.
However, the poster role for long-term, positive image extension has to be as captain of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise, a model of benevolent authority. The first to assume the role, William Shatner, has endorsed multiple products successfully throughout his career, and is now enjoying a long run as the spokesperson for Priceline. The next actor to sit in the captain’s chair, Patrick Stewart, hasn’t yet appeared onscreen in the United States in an endorsement role, but has been the highly identifiable voiceover for a number of big-name campaigns for companies such as MasterCard, Goodyear, and General Motors.
Then there is the case of William Devane, the successful spokesperson for Rosland Capital (an InterMedia client, and a deal we negotiated), who is probably best known for his decade-long role as the malevolent Greg Sumner on Knot’s Landing. Devine has offset this dubious image by setting the unofficial record for portraying U.S. Presidents. Devane has depicted POTUS five times in the movies and on TV. For good measure, he has also taken on key Cabinet roles, serving as Secretary of State in The West Wing, and as Secretary of Defense in 24.
Finally, a potentially interesting case that bears watching is that of Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable, the wife and mother of five on the extremely popular The Cosby Show. Although there hasn’t been a whiff of impropriety for Rashad in Cosby’s unfolding scandal, public perception can illogically assign guilt by association. However, Rashad’s survey scores have been consistently strong, and actually improved slightly as Cosby’s situation deteriorated.
Having a strong, relevant spokesperson can quickly establish and/or transform a company’s image, position it above the competition, and most critically, generate significant sales and profits.
But the downside can be devastating and potentially irreversible. Given the vagaries of human nature, the risks need to be mitigated to the fullest extent possible by evaluating celebrities carefully using a tool like the DR Star Index.