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Want a celebrity in your ad?
O.K., but watch your step

A two-question "test" for celeb campaigns
By John Emmerling
Advertising Age
November 1, 1976

Celebrities are fun to look at in the ads, but they can be all fun and no sell. An old hand views the pitfalls and offers his simple two-part test for finding out if your chosen celebrity is right for you. (Editor)

Remember the first time you read about a Hollywood biggie getting a "rumored" $1,000,000 contract to do a few commercials? Kinda took your breath away didn’t it? Well, today we’ve been immunized—Greg Peck supposedly is getting a million from Travelers, Jack Benny got the same from the Wool Bureau. Henry Fonda took four years to get his million from GAF, and Peter Sellers was in that tax bracket for his short-lived TWA effort.

But those are mega-bucks for mega-stars. The closer-to-average costs for using a well-known personality today run at least $100,000. And that will still buy a lot of gross rating points. So, the question is: Should you trade off media dollars for talent dollars? And the answer—which you’ve already figured out—is "perhaps." It depends on what your marketing problems are and how well you use a celebrity to help solve them.

According to Harry McMahan (AA, Jan. 26, 1976), celebrity usage was up this past year. Stars were used in 23 of the commercials he selected for last year’s "100 Best." Nowadays, anyone who is likely to show up on the Johnny Carson show is also likely to show up in the commercials on the Johnny Carson show.

Stars are used, without exception, to attract attention. Trouble is, they will simply attract attention to themselves unless there is a well-planned idea that "hoods" them into the advertiser’s product.

I collect old Life magazines (some day I will be very wealthy) and the musty issues of the ‘40s and ‘50s present an endless stream of celebrity endorsements that defy you to associate correctly the product with the face.


If you were an agency guy working on the Chesterfield cigarette account back in 1942, you might have run breathlessly into your client’s office shouting, "I’ve got a sensational idea!" As he looked up, you’d announce dramatically, "Joan Bennett!"

The trouble is, the client probably said, "Hey Charlie, that IS a great idea!" Their use of a celebrity was total borrowed interest. The ad may have done something for the grosses on Joan’s latest release—the ad’s small-type caption promotes a flick with the racy title. "Twin Beds"—but I doubt if the ad did much for Chesterfield.

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, with the growth of television, a few celebrities began to show up on the tube holding products. But most Hollywood types looked down their noses at the idea of making commercials, so the supply of stars was limited. You couldn’t search for the star who was exactly right—one who had some special relevance to your product. So you took whoever was available and used him as a pitchman.

Arthur Godfrey is the guy who springs to mind—no real "hook" for your product because he was out there selling everybody’s product. But, in TV’s beginning years maybe that didn’t matter—after all, we normally had 60 luxurious seconds to deliver our messages and our mini-movies didn’t have to compete with four or five other advertisers during a station break. If Arthur didn’t make the sale on Tuesday night, you’ still be around for him to make another relaxed pitch on Wednesday night.


Today, the game has changed. Your 30-second commercial is fighting for its life in a cluttered jungle. A typical viewer might not see your commercial again for two weeks.

Today, we desperately want people to notice us, so naturally the usage of starts is up. Of course, there is still a lot of the dumb kind of celebrity advertising ("It’s a dull storyboard, Lou…who can we get to deliver it with some pizzazz??") But there is also a refreshing trend to really well planned celebrity campaigns.

Robert Morley for British Airways. Jonathan Winters for Hefty Bags. Karl Malden for American Express…and let’s stop there for a moment. Karl Malden is most recently known to viewers as the tough cop who wears a hat in the "Streets of San Francisco" television show. The Travelers Cheques division of American Express uses Malden in a similar "tough cop" role (have you noticed that he wears the same hat?) as a spokesman for the safety of Travelers Cheques. Very effective. Almost like getting the endorsement of a real cop.0


Here are two tests I use to evaluate a proposed celebrity campaign:

First, subtract the celebrity. Hold up a storyboard that features a star and pretend that the somebody is a nobody. If there’s a strong selling idea, the commercial will still work. If the commercial falls flat, go back to the typewriters and drawing boards—your product is playing a distant second fiddle. If you pass that test, move on to the next one…

Multiply the celebrity. Ask yourself if 20 other stars could do the job just as well as the one you have selected. If yes, you’ve fallen into the "Joan Bennett" trap and viewers will probably recall seeing your star, but won’t be able to link your product to that recollection. If, however, you’ve picked a celebrity with a relevant "hook," if you’ve picked someone with a special connection, a special expertise, an especially appropriate life style, then you’ve probably picked yourself a powerful piece of advertising.

The recent Grape-Nuts campaign featuring Euell Gibbons is a good example. The basic idea—relating the taste and nutrition of wild, edible things—was without a celebrity. It passes Test 1. Now, consider whether or not a multitude of other celebrities could pull it off as well as author-and-natural-foods-expert Euell. Not hardly. Test 2 passed with flying colors. The results? An early report on the success of that campaign pegged Grape-Nuts at a 30% increase and climbing.

Now here’s a case history I lived through for the past three years. (Until recently, I was creative director of Richard K. Manoff Inc. and, as such, was responsible for the care and feeding of the Don Rickles campaign for National Car Rental.) Back in ’73, National was a solid No. 3 in the car rental business with a market penetration of better than 20%. But every time we did an awareness study, Hertz and Avis dominated it. National had innovative programs like their 26-hour check-in day and their Maintenance Check List—but nobody knew about them.

With a much smaller budget than the budgets the Big Two were wielding, we had to build awareness for National and its programs. This led to an all-out creative "exploratory" and eventually—after reviewing a truckload of possibilities—came down to a single campaign we all liked best. We called it the "hard-to-please customer," in which a chronic complainer confronts our employees and pleasant, factual answers eventually shut him up.


The initial storyboard worked fine using an actor to play the "bad guy" role, but we were looking for a breakthrough in awareness so we went on to examine the use of a celebrity. The name that topped the list was, of course, Don Rickles. Rickles is instantly recognizable as a loudmouthed "bad guy" and we were sure viewers would enjoy seeing him squelched. The idea checked out on both "tests":

Subtract the celebrity and the commercial still had a strong idea—"the chronic complainer who gets set straight." Multiply the celebrity, however, and it was evident that only a handful of celebrities had the image to play the role well and that Rickles could probably play it best.

John Emmerling, left (circa 1974) taking abuse from Don Rickles.

Next problem was that Rickles had never done a commercial so we checked his availability. Don’s manager said he’d consider going along with us providing he liked the commercials. Moving ahead, we researched the campaign idea by producing an animated film that simulated the Rickles approach. We tested it at AC-T—a theatre technique—and kept our fingers crossed. The research was gangbusters. High awareness scores and excellent communication of copy points. We went to work preparing a final, persuasive presentation to top the company’s top management. (Don wasn’t anywhere near the million-dollar bonus babies, but to National his "scale" was a first time venture into the world of high-cost talent.)

Everything came together and by early ’74 we were into production with the first of the eight commercials we’ve completed to date featuring "Mr. Warmth." Here’s one of our scripts:

(Open on Rickles sitting in car. Mechanic walks by.)

Announcer: Don Rickles versus National Car Rental (SFX: bong!)

Rickles: You sign this Maintenance Check List?

Mechanic: Yessir, I inspected your Buick Century.

Rickles: What’d you do before that? Inspect the Titanic?

Mechanic (concerned): There’s something wrong? I checked every item on the list.

Rickles (pushing button on the dash): What about the wipers? Or does my wife have to run alongside with an umbrella?

Mechanic (discovering Don’s mistake): Sir, that’s the lights.

Rickles (dismayed): The lights?

Mechanic (pushing correct button): The wipers.

Rickles (beaten): The wipers…

Announcer: National’s Maintenance Check List…it certifies the condition of your car in writing.

National has an on-going tracking study among car renters and when this campaign was only eight weeks old, top-of-mind awareness had increased by 22%. More recently, the same measure showed an over-all 50% awareness increase. And, of course, the real payoff is that in a tough car rental market, National has been enjoying gains in both revenue and penetration.

Conclusion: in National’s case, it was well worth the bucks to hire the star.

Now, let me offer some handy hints for dealing with celebrities. I’ll begin where this article began: With money. Let’s say you’re working on the Nutso peanut butter account and they spend a half million in media—well, you can throw away that storyboard where you have Rich Little impersonating a peanut. At about $100,000 for one year’s use, today’s minimum for a top, established star would eat up too much of your total budget. But let’s assume you’ve got the bucks and you’ve hit on a celebrity with a terrific "hook" to your product. You generally start the process by contacting the talent agent. If your initial offer is within the ballpark, he’ll pass it on to the talent.

You can always expect agents to come back with a counter-proposal. One top agent told me that most advertising agencies just give in at that point. Wrong! You’re buying a rug at a Turkish bazaar—make a counter-offer to their counter-offer.

What if you want to test the effect of a star in your campaign? Another agent told me that if he gets 50 calls a week inquiring about celebrities, 45 of them want the star to do a test. A test—now, that’s tough for a star’s ego to accept. ("Gee, Frank, I dunno how to tell you this, but you bombed out at ASI.") But, with stars now starting to compete with each other to do commercials, many of them will go along. The normal fee for test use of a celebrity can range from $10,000 up to $35,000 and that includes a day or so for you to shoot a rough, test commercial.

But even before you think about testing, here are some other points to check. You obviously have picked a star who uses—or will agree to use—your product.

You should check his health. Bert Lahr died in the middle of an outstanding campaign for Lay’s potato chips.

Check the star’s after-hours behavior. You don’t want to spend $100,000 and a bunch of production money and then have your guy show up drunk on the Tonight Show. Or, how would you stand with your client if several years ago you had sold and produced a complete campaign featuring Lance Rentzel?


By now, you’ve checked out your star, maybe tested him, and final negotiations are under way. Don’t forget the little extras. In addition to your filming days, try to get a commitment for an appearance or two at your key sales meetings or conventions.
If your star is an athlete or someone else who hasn’t spent much time before a camera, be prepared for a million retakes. Probably a rehearsal day is your best bet. And maybe allow for one more shooting day than you think you’ll need.

It’s a long, difficult process, coming up with the right idea, negotiating the talent, producing the commercials and ads, and then keeping your clients convinced that they are spending the extra money wisely so that the campaign has time—usually measured in years—to build its awareness.

But when it’s all said and done, the best part might just be when you can go to a neighborhood cocktail party and work into your conversation something like "Hey, I gotta tell you about this really great number Don Rickles did on me at the shoot last week…"


Here’s a brief layman’s guide to the Federal Trade Commission’s latest position on celebrity advertising. It’s not very startling actually. In their May 20, 1975 final and proposed guidelines, it goes something like this:

They want Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle to actually drink Miller beer. If well known personalities don’t really use the products they advertise, then the advertising can be challenged as deceptive and unfair. Now, how about that Joe Namath commercial where he’s wearing pantyhose? The FTC—not known for its sense of humor—says that that commercial would probably be regarded as "fanciful" and not necessarily a testimonial or an endorsement. (Whew! That should keep Joe from being arrested 19 times every week.)

Next, what the star says obviously has to be true and documentable. Just because Fran Tarkenton might think that Wheaties makes him throw a football further, he couldn’t say that on the air unless it was documented.

Third, if you use an expert endorser, he’d better use his expertise. A.J. Foyt would be okay to endorse Goodyear tires, but the FTC wants A.J. to have thoroughly familiarized himself with the performance specs of the advertised tire and to have actually tested it himself.

One more guideline, still under consideration, would require a celebrity who owns a substantial interest in a company whose product he’s endorsing to disclose that association… "Hi there, Bing Crosby here…major stockholder in Minute Maid…and I’d like to tell you about a great lil’ ol’ glass of orange juice…"

That’s the FTC today. Who knows where they’ll be tomorrow.


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