Celebrities and Internet Advertising

No, this is neither a column on Paris Hilton, her infamous short film, or her ad for Carl’s Jr. Nor is it a column on the little viral ditty (or dozens of ditties) someone did to spoof Michael Jackson. If you want to see which celebrities are currently being spoofed online, visit 3dge. And if you want to see which are searched most, go to The NEC Group Celebrity Centre.

Made-for-Internet video is becoming much more commonplace as marketers leverage branded content’s power online. Last year’s American Express Seinfeld/Superman campaign showed what happens when you combine a great brand with powerful creative and celebrity icons.

More bandwidth and bigger budgets are fueling this wonderful creative renaissance.

This type of branded content is showing up in interesting new places. Massive Inc. now includes full-motion video ads in its online gaming ad network. A video iPod is rumored to be released this fall. Video is clearly on the move.

We work on a lot of complex, integrated, multichannel campaigns, often with other agency partners. In some cases, assets are created for TV or other media, then digitized for distribution on the Web or translated into new campaigns. Reuse sounds like a reasonable idea, right? But it’s not always possible. Not because of technology issues, creative constraints, or even cost, but due to intellectual property issues.

Viral promotions with a send-to-a-friend feature require special attention. If Internet distribution isn’t negotiated upfront with talent, it becomes a stumbling block down the road. A TV spot has a beginning… and an end. Its TV lifespan is controlled by the client, its agency, and its media partners. So there’s a sense of security for the talent that appears in the ad. But what about online ads that don’t necessarily have a predefined lifespan, particularly when they go viral?

I chatted with Stacy Swann, talent manager for rights and licensing at BBDO Detroit, about this topic. Her agency executed over 3,800 TV and radio spots last year.

MK: Are you seeing the issue of digital rights management become a bigger issue as campaigns become more integrated?

SS: Yes, just in the last month the requests have been coming from every direction, especially with email pushes and viral campaigns. Now, I hear them mentioned daily.

MK: What are the challenges?

SS: Celebrity endorsements seem to be on the rise again. I’m reminded that you have to cover as many “options” in celebrity and/or music contracts as you can think of. Even if the client never expresses any real interest in those options, it’s best to have them negotiated upfront. That’s not to say the celebrity, writer, or artist (and their representatives) will agree to every type of use. The performers’ unions have set contractual rates for the use of their image in Web commercials. But the agents, and stars themselves, are very particular about what happens to a commercial, and their likeness or music, once it’s on the Web. A simple video download of a spot is usually a no-no for the rich and famous. Why? It can live forever.

MK: Do you find many examples of campaigns with rights agreements that actually allow unending distribution through the Web, such as downloadable viral video campaigns?

SS: Good question. My sources in the world of celebrity and music clearance say it can and has been done. Most people I know would be turned off by the indefinite distribution term required by this kind of Web advertising. Once a spot is downloaded or sent via viral email, it can no longer be pulled or retracted. It has an eternal Internet life. If spots last forever on the Web, if they are tied to a product or service, then it’s hard for celebrities to license their image to other advertisers. I’m sure that some celebrities would consider it — for the right price.

MK: Any idea what an unending distribution agreement can cost?

SS: It would depend a great deal on the asset. Any piece of music that may be described as iconic or considered a piece of history, or a celebrity with an active box office career would probably just tell you “no” immediately.

MK: Any other issues regarding intellectual property or digital rights management we should be thinking about?

SS: Everything has an owner and a price. Clearance deals take time, and you should never just assume someone would love to grant you access to their likeness, film, or music. I would also expect the performers’ unions to become much more heavily involved on this topic.

MK: Thanks, Stacy!

With a rise in viral programming, intellectual property takes on new significance. Who owns what? If you have thoughts or observations on this topic, please share.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.