Celeb on the Web

Celebrity endorsements have been around as long as there’ve been celebrities — and media. After some of the awkward fits and starts inherent to any new medium, celebrity shills have become, if not a staple, at least a fixture in online marketing. Over the past year or so, a handful of major brands have associated themselves with A-list talent in ways that are stunning, surprising, and extraordinarily innovative.

But can it last?

A rash of celebs who don’t do commercials now do them: Madonna. Robert De Niro. U2. Add to these the names of spokestars who’ve been known to shill in the past, albeit selectively: Martin Scorsese, Seinfeld, Superman, Ridley and Tony Scott, Ellen DeGeneres, Minnie Driver, Daryl Hannah, to name but a few. It’s pretty clear there’s a trend going on. These are no Rula Lenskas. Of course, brands that can reach for stars of this stature have their own considerable stature: BMW, American Express, Amazon.com, Apple, and Nike.

Moreover, all these brand advertisers claim strong results from campaigns that essentially harness box office to broadband, and sometimes use offline media as well.

Carefully channeled megawatt celebrity power became an online phenomenon in 2001, when BMW launched “The Hire,” now in its second series on bmwfilms.com. The concept was pretty simple, really. “These people don’t watch TV,” explained Mark Sitley, talking of the target audience. Sitley, now executive creative director at Euro RSCG, worked on the campaign when he was with Fallon Worldwide. Speaking at the Media Summit this week, Sitley said of the talent in “The Hire,” which includes Madonna, Guy Ritchie, and John Frankenheimer, the cost was “less than I’ve seen in 20 years.” Cutting-edge names were eager to be associated with a cutting-edge medium. The budget went into the production, not into a media buy.

BMW achieved a critical first. “The Hire” was surrounded by a flurry of media attention. In contrast, Mercedes’ copycat “Lucky Star” campaign, directed by Michael Mann and starring Benecio del Toro, went all but unnoticed.

American Express made the next leap forward in the use of super-celebritydom in its online campaign starring Superman and Jerry Seinfeld (directed, not incidentally, by Barry Levinson). Amex furthered what BMW began. The company very effectively used TV to drive viewers to the Web, employing a more episodic narrative continuum to keep viewers coming back for future installments. More interactive components were incorporated into the site (items in Jerry’s online apartment were clickable); and they milked the PR angle for all it was worth (Seinfeld did pretty much the entire talk-show circuit).

An element both BMW and Amex share, fast becoming a hallmark of online celebrity campaigns, is a “one is never enough” credo. It’s got to be Madonna and Guy Ritchie. Seinfeld and Superman. And with Amex’s current campaign, De Niro and Scorsese. It’s opt-in advertising, after all (hence very soft sell). A little extra bait on the hook won’t hurt. Names associated with Amex’s current “My life. My card.” global campaign, and who appear on the dedicated Web site, include Tiger Woods, Ellen DeGeneres, and surfer Laird Hamilton. More to come. On the back end, Annie Leibovitz is contributing creative.

Arguably, even the iPod U2 Special Edition bears a double celebrity imprimatur. There’s the band, sure, on Apple’s Web site, on iTunes, TV, and outdoor. On top of that, there’s front man Bono. A large segment of the band’s fan base, and potential iPod buyers, can’t see the cause-obsessed singer show up anywhere from the TV ad to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to South Africa, without flashing on the brand.

Another recent instance of celeb-meets-the-Web is Amazon Theatre. Over five weeks, the e-commerce giant home-paged five short films featuring a roster of talent, including Daryl Hannah, Chris Noth, David Slade, Blair Underwood, Tony Scott (dare I say of BMW fame?), and Minnie Driver. This campaign had zero offline support.

Rob Buchner, CMO of Fallon Worldwide (the agency that brought you BMW’s groundbreaking film festival), divulges rather vaguely that Amazon’s series has so far prompted “tens of millions” of downloads. It was built to fulfill the goal of driving sales of lesser-known Amazon merchandise. Metrics are under wraps, but Buchner did divulge Amazon’s jewelry sales were up 120 percent in Q4. The films also “starred” merchandise, featuring hyperlinked “product credits.”

Harnessing celebrity power in online advertising and marketing will undoubtedly continue, but how long will campaigns that team superstars with mega- and hyperstars remain viable for major brand advertisers?

I don’t mean the Nikes of the world. The shoemaker has a cast list of athletes longer than your arm on its site and in its advertising. These players are tied into the profits of associated products, too.

There’s always the question of money. Stars willing to work for a fraction of their usual fees in exchange for the cutting-edge association of being on the Web will be less willing to do so in this increasingly quotidian medium. The middlemen will close in. “Agents were very late to the game, and they still can’t connect the dots,” Sitley observed. That will change.

The publicity firestorms that drive traffic will fizzle when once-in-a-lifetime celebrity showcases continue to show up. And there are only so many celebrities who don’t play pitchman, a la De Niro, who will relent and pitch.

More gradually, but perhaps just as inevitably, changing media consumption habits could begin to erode the value of celebrity. If “these people don’t watch TV,” as Sitley said about BMW’s target demographic, how many more Seinfelds can the tube hope to squeeze out? More and more feature films open, and close, in ever-briefer windows.

Fallon’s Buchner described celebrity-sodden campaigns as a means to “help us find our brand’s way into culture.” Yet it’s a culture that’s increasingly fragmented and niched. Major online properties such as Yahoo and Microsoft are only just beginning to make inroads into what they hope will be major entertainment content strategies.

The other day, Gawker reported receiving an email from the casting agent doing Levi’s new branding campaign, “A Style for Every Story.” The company is seeking bloggers “to appear as themselves. If we use you, you will get $10,000 and your name will appear next to it.”

Wonder whose 15 minutes are up next?

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 28-March 3.

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