The Ineffectiveness of the Celebrity Pitch
It started out innocently enough.
Shrewd marketers realized they could profit by association with celebrities. So in the early 1900s you find baseball legend Cy Young’s face all over advertisements for cigars and cigarettes. If a cigar roller speaks about his craft, that only provides so much interest. If you’re a fan of cigars you might take the time to read about what work goes into making them. But if Cy Young’s mug is next to the same ad copy, interest spikes. Even better, it draws in people who don’t care all that much about cigars, but are willing to listen because…hey, it’s Cy Young!
Because this worked, the practice was expanded and really took off with the boom of Hollywood.
Since I write a series set in the 1950’s, I’m comfortable flexing my credentials as an amateur historian when it comes to the first half of the 20th century (fun fact: I was a history minor in college, too). I’ve read thousand upon thousands of pages about the era, watched countless movies and television shows produced in that era, listened to vintage radio, you name it.
Like today, celebrity was a big deal in the pop culture lives of much of mainstream America. Unlike today, there was far less of the love-to-hate feeling we now see.
Celebrities were effective vehicles for the pitch because people genuinely liked them. They were talented, funny, and often beautiful. But with that came a well maintained public perception of being the sort of men who would feel at ease with the common man. Bob Hope would gladly pal around with you at a backyard barbecue (if you happened to be neighbors). Jimmy Stewart fought with distinction during WWII, just like so many other guys living out his dream in Suburbia.
These were the type of actors you wanted to like.
Sure, by all accounts a celebrity such as Joe DiMaggio was a grade-A, farm-fresh, jerk, but he had the sense to keep that from the public. So if the brand of cigarettes a celebrity encouraged you to buy weren’t to your liking, oh well. No harm done. You can still enjoy the latest Road to… movie without feeling sucked out of the experience.
Fast forward past countless celebrity endorsements until we arrive at today.
There are (probably) still product endorsements impacting the lives of those of us unable to skip past commercials. But as best I can tell from my spot in the cheap seats of the internet, the primary message being hocked by celebrities has switched from friendly suggestions over what products the American public might enjoy to telling (bordering on demanding) the American public to believe what they believe. To think how they think.
Celebrities giving their opinions on politics and lifestyle is nothing new. Will Rogers was doing it until his death in 1935. But the tone has shifted. Gone is the warm, humble persona willing to share their heartfelt beliefs but not above poking fun at themselves and their preferred policies.
Modern celebrity has lost its likeability because they’ve confused projecting a high character or amicable personality with the fleeting applause of the echo chamber. They don’t even try to find common ground, express critical thought, or deliver measured words.
Celebrity influence was an utter failure in the past election. I feel confident in saying that no matter how passionate an award speech is, no matter how well executed those Facebook videos with all the jump cuts are, celebrity influence will continue to be a failure. It will fail because the messengers no longer see the need to prove themselves worth listening to (unless you already agree with them). There is an expectation that those wearing the crowns of Hollywood passed down from the previous generations are owed consideration because they’re famous.
It doesn’t work like that. It never did.