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Can a Celebrity Endorsement Hurt the Brand?

The surprising "Vampire Effect" of using celebrity spokespersons.

Using endorsements from celebrities to sell products is a popular advertising method.  Celebrity endorsements have been around since at least 1765 (and most likely, much longer), when Josiah Wedgwood used an endorsement from Queen Charlotte of England to pitch his pottery and china all over Europe. The eponymous company Wedgwood, launched in 1769 with an assist from royal endorsement, is still going strong today.  

Celebrity endorsements are very popular

While precise numbers are hard to find, what is clear is that each year, companies all over the world pay tens of billions of dollars to celebrities to act as their spokespersons, touting everything from perfume and shoes to insurance and automobiles.  From Argentina to Zambia, celebrity spokespersons are popular all over the planet.

Take the case of Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback who’s currently the highest paid celebrity endorser in the NFL.  Over the past decade, he has marketed numerous brands including Reebok, Buick, Nationwide Insurance, Papa John’s, Gatorade, Nike, and DirecTV.  In 2015 alone, he will earn $12 million from endorsements, according to Forbes magazine.

Beyond athletes, movie stars such as Nicole Kidman for Chanel No. 5, or Eva Longoria for L’Oreal Paris are successful, credited with enhancing the statures of Chanel and L’Oreal, and increasing their sales.  According to a study reported by market research provider MillwardBrown, 18% of all ads globally contained a celebrity spokesperson in 2011, a staggering number.

Advertisers believe that endorsements work because celebrities garner attention from otherwise distracted or uninterested viewers, who then transfer their positive feelings for the celebrity to the brand.  In other words, because I like and admire Peyton Manning’s football prowess or Nicole Kidman’s beauty, I will be more likely to buy the products they endorse.

What is the Vampire Effect of a Celebrity Spokesperson?

Rather than considering the benefits of celebrity endorsement for advertisers, in this post, I want to discuss one of its most interesting negative effects, the so-called “vampire effect”.

The vampire effect, also known to some marketing experts as the “overshadowing effect” occurs when the persona and sheer force of personality of the celebrity endorser overshadows the advertised brand.  Rather than helping to sell the brand and enhancing its stature, the celebrity’s presence reduces the ad’s effectiveness and hurts the brand. 

Where does this effect’s imaginative name come from?  Advertising expert Robin Evans answers this question nicely:

“The use of celebrities, if they don't have a distinct and specific relationship to the product they are advertising, tends to produce the ‘vampire effect’: they suck the life-blood of the product dry; the audience remembers the celebrity but not the product.”

Although such a description is vivid and memorable (and how cool is naming a psychological effect after vampires), it does not fully or precisely explain what the vampire effect is.  More importantly, it does not tell advertisers how to measure the effect or figure out how serious it is for their particular brand relative to others.

A recent paper written by marketing scholars Carsten Erfgen, Sebastian Zenker and Henrik Sattler corrected these problems.  What I liked most about the paper was that the authors provide us with a clear, measurable definition of the vampire effect so that marketers can measure the degree of its seriousness for their own advertisements.

The authors’ definition of the vampire effect is based on one of the most important goals shared by all advertisers: consumers’ recall of the brand after seeing the advertisement.   

They define the effect as “the decrease in brand recall in an advertisement for an advertising stimulus with a celebrity endorser compared with the brand recall prompted by the same advertising stimulus with an unknown but equally attractive endorser.”

In one of their studies, Erfgen and his colleagues worked with a German company and its ad agency to create two versions of the same print ad for a hair coloring product. One version contained the well-known celebrity endorser Cindy Crawford pitching the product, while the second version was identical in copy but had an equally attractive but unknown model. Roughly a thousand participants, all women who used hair color products regularly, were shown one of the two versions for 6 seconds and later asked to remember which brand they had seen using “unaided” and “aided” recall.

These two recall measures are standard in advertising research. Unaided recall refers to whether the consumer can remember the brand via an open-ended question without any cue, a harder feat for the consumer. In aided recall, the consumer is given a list of brands and simply asked to select the brand they have just seen in the ad. In their study, the authors found lower levels of aided (21% vs. 26%) and unaided recall (35% vs. 44%) of the brand when Cindy Crawford was in the ad compared to the unknown model. It seems participants paid more attention to Cindy than the brand. Usefully, in other studies reported in the paper, the authors verify that the same sort of effect occurs when other brands and other celebrities (of both genders and of varying attractiveness levels) are used. 

Lessons for marketers about celebrity endorsements

The implications of the vampire effect are clear. Marketers must balance the benefits of celebrity endorsements with the potential downsides of being overshadowed. When using celebrity endorsements, marketers can do at least three things to reduce the vampire effect.

  • Use “matching” celebrities. The key to successful endorsement outcomes is celebrities that match the brand’s essential qualities.  Athletes like LeBron James and J. J. Watt are likely to be good fits with shoes and sportswear that relate directly to their sports or with rugged products like trucks (Watt) or technical products like watches (James) that match the high performance and reliability aspects associated with these athletes.  Products that don’t match the celebrities’ desirable qualities may not benefit as much from endorsements.
  • Pick celebrities with “lower-risk lifestyles.” While it is impossible to control the behavior of any person 24/7, using a celebrity that engages in questionable behavior is a recipe for disaster.  One academic study found that in the 2-3 weeks after Tiger Woods’ extra-marital affairs became public, the shareholders of Nike, Gatorade, and Electronic Arts — his endorsers — lost somewhere between $5 and $12 billion dollars.  This is one reason why celebrities with good reputations like J. J. Watt and Stephen Curry are in such high demand.
  • Build longer-term partnerships. For most brands, the benefits of endorsement occur when the celebrity comes to be associated with the brand just as much as the brand is associated with the celebrity.  Take the example of Peyton Manning who has been endorsing Papa John’s pizza since 2011.  His commitment goes beyond TV commercials: in 2012, he signed on to own 21 Papa John’s stores in Denver signaling this commitment to the brand and his approval of it in a tangible way.  It is not surprising that his Denver Broncos team-mates refer to him as “Papa in the house.”  In this case, even though there isn’t a naturally good fit, the brand still benefits.

When we think of all the endorsements given by celebrities with larger-than-life personalities, it seems all too possible that consumers will remember the celebrity and forget the brand.  What does the vampire effect teach marketers?  That sometimes an unknown spokesperson may help your brand more than a well-known celebrity.  And if you do want to use celebrities, find those with good fits to the brand.  Avoid celebrities with high-risk lifestyles and insist on longer-term endorsement relationships so that the celebrity’s aura has time to rub off on the brand.

I teach core marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.