More advertisers ink thesps in hopes of creating bigger brand impact

Wen the envelope is opened for best actress in an advertising campaign, the award will surely land smack into the hands of Angelina Jolie.

Jolie is this spring’s surprising new face of dress manufacturer St. John, a staid but cherished brand more familiar to Palm Beach matrons than Hollywood babes.

Jolie’s multitasking is only one manifestation of a parade of highly successful marriages between Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Once seen as selling out, today “going commercial” is just a stop between celebrity magazine cover shoots. Overexposure and pushing products are no longer negatives for today’s savvy movie stars.

“There’s been a real cultural shift,” says Jeffrey Blish, partner at ad agency Deutsch. “First was the rise of hip-hop, when it became cool to go from nothing to making it. With young people these days, anything that someone does to make more money and flaunt it is seen as cool. And second, advertising has become an art form that people appreciate. Fame is the current currency.”

Actors have always done commercials, but it was usually those whose careers were cooling down. If an A-list face did succumb to the big bucks, the ads only ran overseas.

Fame game

All that has changed. Today’s superstar trifecta is a blockbuster role, the cover of Vogue and a big, fat advertising contract. Stars are no longer just stars; they have three careers going at once and each career feeds into the other.

Over a decade ago, in response to the demise of the supermodel, fashion magazines started opening up to the celebrity as a cover girl. More recently, in response to the crisis in branding, advertisers reached out to the more-than-willing celebrities to capture the marketplace.

Uma Thurman modeled for InStyle and signed with Tag Heuer. Kate Winslet modeled for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and is all over the place for American Express. Sarah Jessica Parker has done them all — Vogue, InStyle and Glamour and, for better or for worse, was the face of The Gap. Halle Berry has modeled for countless covers and is now the spring face of Versace and, believe it or not, she is still doing Revlon. Nicole Kidman is Chanel; Catherine Zeta-Jones is T-Mobile and Elizabeth Arden; Queen Latifah is Cover Girl.

Vanity Fair recently featured Jolie spread across two editorial pages in a provocative Annie Leibovitz photograph only pages away from a St. John’s ad, in a very conservative photograph by Mario Testino.

Ten years ago this juxtaposition would not have been allowed to happen. But using celebrities in advertising has snowballed in the past five years.

“It’s a newer and newer trend,” says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a market-research company. “I suppose that movie stars have discovered that it’s an easy way to make some money without the critics yelling at you.”

Marketing experts believe that advertisers have moved toward entertainers because they think that it’s a better way to engage customers. Celebrities become convenient touch points for brands to associate themselves with.

“It’s about the electronic, high-tech, beam-to-your-phone technology world that we live in,” adds Passikoff. “At the outset of modern marketing, there weren’t a whole lot of folks who were willing to shill for products. And now anyone will. … By the 1990s everything was so undifferentiated that advertisers were willing to borrow the equity wherever they could find it, and the most easily recognizable was go to a celeb.”

Career move

“It’s nuts,” says Jonathan Rodgers, deputy chief creative officer at Grey Advertising. “It’s almost got to the point where it’s wrong or it’s weird or it’s not a good career move if you don’t do it. But you have to remember you’re hiring a movie actress, not just a movie star. You need to understand that they’re going to go outside your brand character. You’re going to try and pick somebody who’s consistent with your brand character, but they’re certainly not going to make career choices based on the agreement with you.”

That’s the big danger in using a celebrity. “It can work very well or it can work very badly,” says Passikoff. “A human brand is very dangerous. Madonna was the spokesbody for Versace for a while and that wasn’t terribly successful and that has nothing to do with her talent. It was that she is such a chameleon as a performer. I don’t think consumers could really find a fix. When it doesn’t work is when a marketer mistakes a marketing opportunity for what is essentially a brand strategy.”

Customer gap

For example, the Gap.

“The Gap had their key market but saw that they were not getting an older, more conservative customer,” says Passikoff. “And so they tried to capture that marketplace and they failed dismally. Sarah Jessica Parker, a lovely talented woman who looks nice in clothing, but coming off six years of ‘Sex and the City’ and imbued with such haute couture values, was not what the Gap needed. And so there was a disconnect. St. John has looked around and said there are opportunities in other markets. The question is whether or not the brand and the way they utilize a celebrity can sustain that opportunity.”

What happens to the relationship with Madison Avenue when the face of their brand gets bad press?

“It depends what kind of news it is,” says Rodgers. “You’ve seen lately what can happen when celebs behave badly, and it’s a distressing thing for an advertiser. … In some cases, there are advertisers that latch on to that bad-girl image if it’s consistent with their brand character. I don’t think any advertiser wants to be associated with drugs but a certain rebelliousness, yes.”

“If Angelina does something bad, it will only ensure that she’s on the next 10 covers of People magazine,” says AdAge’s Stephanie Thompson. “It was an absolute strategic move for St. John to pick someone risky. They’re trying to reach out to people who say, ‘Those staid St. John knits are featuring Angelina Jolie. Well, maybe I’ll try them.’ ”

Those two wildly contrasting spreads in Vanity Fair will surely put this theory to the test.

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