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Consumer Behavior

The lure of celebrity endorsements

Fight the urge to look like the latest trendsetters

As they compete for our divided attention in a struggling global economy, retailers seek out more and more drastic ways to influence our spending decisions. Store owners strategically arrange products in the aisles and on the shelves to entice you to spend more than you can or should afford. Online retailers insert flashing ads, often targeted to your previous purchases, inside news stories, search engines, and websites devoted to information (and even psychology blogs!). But long before you make a purchase, your brain has already made decisions for you. Though celebrity endorsements are not new to the advertising world, knowledge about how they work is only now coming to light. The emerging field of neuroeconomics is paving the way for researchers to figure out how to insert their messages into the parts of your brain that control what you ultimately buy.

In previous postings, I've written about the psychology of eBay and the strategies used in holiday sales. Our purchasing behavior, and how it is shaped by clever marketing, has a significant influence on our feelings of well-being. When we spend too much, especially on things we never intended to buy in the first place, we can get into pretty serious trouble. If retailers now start to tap into our brain waves, it's going to be pretty tough to avoid this insidious stimulation to spend, spend, spend.

A Kate Middleton doll

The latest celebrity marketing ploy centers on the royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. Beginning with the news of their engagement in Fall 2010, the world media began to spend extensive time and attention on the minutae of the upcoming wedding, from the dress that she wore during the announcement to the dress she will wear to the many social events leading up to the marriage. The New York Times reports that a replica of her ring will now be available for purchase, but over the past few months, everything from look-alikes of the famous dress to nail polish is being promoted with the Kate Middleton "brand." There's even a Dunkin Donut named in honor of the royal wedding; guaranteed to increase your need, perhaps in the future, for a royal Weight Watchers program a la Sarah Ferguson. Although the public doesn't seem to be suffering from epidemic levels of matrimania (def: mania over marriage), advertisers are banking on the fact that women everywhere will want to sport the Kate Middleton look right here and right now.

It's unlikely that Kate will appear on QVC to join in the promotion frenzy (and it's doubtful she ever would), but the notion that the royal arms will be exploited does concern the British. There is actually an etiquette prescribed by "Rule 3.52 of the CAP Code which advises that Royal Arms or Emblems should not be used by marketers without prior permission of the Lord Chamberlain, the senior official in the Royal Household." Still, marketing mavens will find wily ways to use Kate's image to their advantage.

Advertisers have known for decades that the image of a celebrity, royal or otherwise, can help sell products, especially when the celebrity involved has a reason to claim the status of being an expert. A study by a team of Dutch researchers headed by Mirre Stallen showed why famous faces sell. In this study, when young women were exposed to images of shoes paired with faces of celebrities (vs. non-famous women), the areas of their brains involved in processing emotional stimuli were more likely to become activated. In other words, positive feelings toward celebrities transferred onto positive feelings toward the shoes. Memory for the shoes that were paired with celebrities was also better than for shoes paired with non-celebrities. The participants also said they'd be more likely to buy the shoes associated with a celebrity's face, as long as the shoes were ones the believed the celebrities didn't already own.

The moral of the story is that as long as celebrities such as Kate Middleton continue to be perceived positively, they'll sell more products associated with their images. Marketers seem to be aware of this, as indicated by Nike's pullout of ads involving Tiger Woods after his fall from grace. Charlie Sheen seems to be marketing primarily himself; perhaps a profitable strategy in the short-run but not one likely to result in huge endorsement deals from major companies trying to put a positive spin on their product lines.

The actual coverage of the royal wedding may not meet the expectations of the major media outlets, but the advertising based on the fairy tale romance will almost certainly continue for months, if not years. As her every action is scrutinized by the tabloids around the world, advertisers will be watching carefully to make sure that her currently favorable popularity ratings stay unblemished. In the meantime, let's hope that we can resist the incursion of neuromarketing into our consumer behavior. If you always wanted a lookalike of Princess Di's engagement ring, now's your chance, but otherwise, you may want to build some inner walls to protect yourself from the "glimmering baubles" of fame.

How can you resist the inner lure of celebrity endorsements? Here are 5 tips:

1. Realize when you're being lured. Don't be drawn into celebrity marketing. The famous faces that adorn ads ranging from cars to makeup are there to draw your emotional reactions. The more you know about how your brain reacts, the better you can resist the attempts by marketers to influence your buying decisions.

2. Don't confuse fame with expertise. Trusted stars such as Sam Waterston, who helps sell TD Ameritrade, aren't really financial planners. You may have liked him on Law & Order, but would you really trust him with your hard-earned savings?

3. Before you make a purchasing decision, turn off your emotions. Our impulse purchases are usually the ones that get us into trouble. Make your buying decisions on solid, objective grounds.

4. Do your own research into products. Online retail sites can serve as terrific ways to make wise purchases, especially if they provide consumer ratings of products you plan to buy. Read their advice carefully.

5. Be wary in stores at your point of purchase. Pictures of celebrities aren't limited to ads. As you're making your buying decisions, look around to see whether or not a product you're about to buy was paired with a celebrity face somewhere in the actual store or even on the product itself.

Psychology can help you save money and make wise purchasing decisions as long as you use your brain wisely. Resist emotional advertising even as it threatens to permeate your cortex!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Stallen, M., Smidts, A., Rijpkema, M., Smit, G., Klucharev, V., & Fernández, G. (2010). Celebrities and shoes on the female brain: The neural correlates of product evaluation in the context of fame. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31, 802-811. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2010.03.006

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