NEW YORK — Madison Avenue is mad for celebrities — and the stars are responding in droves to the admiration.
Movie and TV celebs are lending their voices and images to sell everything from cell phones and fried chicken to automobiles and bottled water.
A sluggish economy, the advent of personal video recorders and shorter attention spans in a world that at times seems to move in hyperspeed have conspired to render image-makers on both coasts more dependent on each other.
“There has been an enormous increase in the use of celebrities on domestic television and in the voiceover market over the last five or six years,” says ICM celeb endorsement agent Karen Sellars.
(Reps at the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA say they do not track which or how many commercials are made by celebs.)
Amid media clutter, in a climate where the lines between each medium are blurring, using celebs may be a more effective tool than simple product placement. TV viewers watching Catherine Zeta-Jones tout T Mobile cel phones, for example, are less likely to tune out than if the same product were peddled by an unknown.
Viewers may prefer to be proselytized by, say, Britney Spears for Pepsi than to endure Coke’s omnipresent product inserts in Fox TV’s hit series “American Idol.”
Ron Berger, CEO of Gotham-based ad firm Euro RSCG MVBMS & Partners, says, “It’s a way of making the idea of your product much larger. It’s in a sense tying yourself in to their content.”
CAA agent Seth Matlins says there’s a strategy to using celebrities as part of a marketing campaign. “Celebs capture people’s attention. It’s all about leveraging consumers’ passion and interest in celebrities,” Matlins says.
Zeta-Jones stands to make millions from T-Mobile’s ambitious national ad campaign, though most celebs make a lot less.
Mad Ave types also see the celeb commercial as a sure-fire way to reach fickle viewers.
“Instead of testing a commercial and seeing what group likes this, what group likes that, people are more regularly using celebrities because celebrities basically have the numbers. You don’t need to have a big creative idea,” says Louis Addesso, prexy of Gotham-based Creative Film Management Intl., which reps film directors in the commercial arena.
The ad business has always employed actors to sell its products, but until recently, top actors typically preferred to do commercials overseas rather than in the U.S., so as not to sully their image.
But now thesps, some in need of the extra cash or faced with long periods of downtime between TV or movie gigs, are checking out the possibilities, and many no longer are afraid to venture beyond the safe haven of fashion and beauty, their normal arenas.
ICM’s Sellars and her counterparts at the major talent agencies — CAA, William Morris, UTA and Endeavor — are charged with finding commercial gigs for their actor clients.
The basic SAG commercial day rate is $652. But stars stand to make anywhere from low-six figures to several million, often for only a few days of work.
Some of these deals are structured as “buyouts,” whereby the celeb is paid a hefty flat fee for a specified time period with no residuals.
Cary Berman, a senior veep of the William Morris Agency, says commercials have become attractive to thesps looking to increase their visibility.
“It’s the same as when film stars started doing television. It was looked down upon,” Berman says. “But now actors see that a commercial can be just as creative and fun as doing (a scene in a) film or a television show.”
The Gap is especially keyed into this concept: Recent khaki spots were shot by feature helmers Cameron Crowe and the Coen brothers and starred Dennis Hopper, Christina Ricci, Kate Beckinsale and Orlando Bloom.
Celebs as diverse as Willie Nelson and Christian Slater were featured in recent multipage Gap ad inserts in major metro dailies.
Radio Shack has lured celebs such as Vanessa Williams, Ving Rhames, Teri Hatcher, Daisy Fuentes and Howie Long.
But in an age where full disclosure is becoming routine practice for stock analysts and beleaguered CEOs, there’s likely to be more attention to the financial ties linking celebs — think Lauren Bacall (for a drug to prevent blindness) and Kathleen Turner (arthritis medication) — to the products they’re touting.
CNN recently issued a policy that requires celebs who want to talk about a medical issue on a CNN news show to say whether they are being paid by a company to do so.
NBC, ABC and CBS say they, too, will be more careful about allowing star guests on news shows to plug a medical product.
Still, the cult of the celeb commercial does have its skeptics.
“Reliance on personality is sometimes the worst thing to do,” says Ellis Verdi, a partner in ad agency DeVito/Verdi. “In select occasions they are the correct choice, but in my opinion they’re overused. That’s because often people want quick, easy solutions instead of relying on working harder for better creative product.”
Adds Verdi, “Most of the time, the celebrities don’t even relate to the product or service they’re selling. In those cases, people might remember the personality and not the product. That’s a big problem.”