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The Dangers of Celebrity Endorsements

What is it about celebrities that makes so many people want to know everything about them, get their hair cut like them (remember the famous "Jennifer Aniston from Friends haircut" craze a few years back), dress like them and buy what they buy?

Perhaps it's the notion that they live "the better life," and if we tap into it long enough maybe we, too, can live like a star (or at least use the same shampoo that they do).

Hollywood Sign

There's no denying Americans are obsessed with stardom-but would you buy a product just because a celebrity endorsed it?

Just how celebrity crazed has our culture become?

We won't ask you to admit if you personally sit glued to the TV when The Simple Life (the reality show starring Paris Hilton) is on, or if you're looking forward to Brittney Spears' coming reality show with her new husband (it's slated to show "exclusive, never-before-seen private home videos" of their "personal love story," after all!)

Just know that in the past few years many dozens of wildly popular reality TV shows have sprung up, giving us glimpses into the "real lives" of stars -- or giving us once-in-a-lifetime chances to become stars ourselves.

If that trend doesn't convince you of our seemingly insatiable hunger for celebrity, at the time of this writing among the top 10 strong-and-gaining search queries on were -- right after the Pope and Vatican City -- Jessica Alba (actress), Carla Gugino (actress) and Selena (deceased pop star)., one of the world's most trusted "hard" news sources, even has an entire section devoted to "Entertainment" so that we can keep totally up to date on the latest celeb happenings.

Celebrity Endorsements in America

It's all in good fun, you may be thinking. But is it? Celebrity endorsements, once more of a novelty, are now commonplace in the advertising world. Ad industries love to use celebrities because the celebrity's image and values get transferred directly to the product, at times adding instant credibility that the company would have otherwise been pressed to build on their own.

Says marketing expert Patrick Bishop, "When you get a celebrity to endorse your company or sign a licensing agreement, you benefit from customers' awareness of the property, [which] could include the perception of quality, educational value or a certain image ... If a celebrity is endorsing them or [the business] is selling the products of a well-known person or entity, then [people assume] they must be a good company to deal with."

And though you may not think you're affected by such ads, "Studies show that using celebrities can increase consumers' awareness of the ad, capture [their] attention and make ads more memorable," says Melissa St. James, a doctoral fellow and marketing instructor at The George Washington University.

Let's say you're in the market for a new car, and you get a glimpse of the new print ads from Buick that feature golfer Tiger Woods. Perhaps you're an avid golfer yourself, or you just like Tiger Woods, so you decide to give the car a second look (when you likely wouldn't have otherwise). Seems harmless enough, but what does Tiger Woods have to do with Buick, and why does his appearance in the ad mean the car is right for you? Logically speaking, nothing, and it doesn't.

That's why these ads often work at a subconscious level, drawing you into the product without you really thinking about why you're drawn in. Not that the ad agencies and marketing departments would ever admit this. Instead, you're likely to hear, as said by Buick Marketing Director Margaret Brooks, " ... We're taking our advertising to the next level by treating both Tiger and the Buick LaCrosse and Rainier as 'high-style' models." Sure. Okay.

Car ads meant for adults aside, there are times when celebrity endorsements can be downright dangerous, particularly when they target children or involve products that have potential to cause you harm.

Celebrities, Junk Food and Your Kids

According to an editorial in The Lancet, celebrity endorsement of junk food is contributing to high rates of obesity, particularly among children.

American Idol

"American Idol" judges sip from Coke cups while millions of Americans look on. Just a coincidence that we can always see the label?

"One of the most invidious techniques used by junk food advertisers is to pay sports and pop celebrities to endorse foods. This is especially bizarre since sports celebrities need a properly balanced diet to achieve fitness. Such celebrities should be ashamed," the editorial said.

Kids, especially those in pre- and early adolescence, are vulnerable to peer pressure as it is, and when some of their most idolized athletes, singers and actors appear on TV with a soda, candy bar, pizza or fast food hamburger in hand, kids want those things too.

The Internet is another marketing haven for junk food, and one that kids are all too familiar with. Marketers know this, and as a result, all the major junk food brands have Web sites, often featuring celebrities.

Pepsi's Web site, for just one example, features Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and Yankees player Alex Rodriguez, both with Pepsi can in hand (or shadowed in the background). And did you know that Snickers brand candy bars not only "handle the hunger of the NFL," but also are the:

  • Official Candy of Little League Baseball

  • Official Snack of U.S. Youth Soccer

  • Sponsor of the Walmart FLW Bass Fishing Tour

  • Sponsor of the Robert Yates Racing Team

Celebrities Turned Doctors?

Celebrities have now started popping up where you'd least expect them: in your medicine cabinet. They're on TV, talking about their arthritis, obesity or high cholesterol, and they're telling you what drugs they use to treat it. But when stars appear on a late night talk show or morning news program, and mention a drug, are they just doing so out of goodwill to share their "miracle cures" with you? Hardly. Drug companies pay huge amounts to celebrities to do so, even when they don't mention the drug by name (though they often do mention a Web site).

One Hollywood agent who deals with such arrangements said celebrities can make "from tens of thousands of dollars to six figures a day for their role in industry-sponsored public awareness campaigns."

Just last month, Pfizer, the drug company that makes the antidepressant Zoloft, launched a Web site featuring Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Jennifer Melfi on the HBO drama "The Sopranos." She will also be featured in TV commercials and has previously mentioned her depression (and treatment with Zoloft) in People magazine, the Associated Press and other media outlets. Other celebs that have recently hit the airwaves talking about antidepressants alone include:

  • Folk singer Shawn Colvin for GlaxoSmithKline's antidepressants Wellbutrin and Paxil.

  • Terry Bradshaw, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, for "The Terry Bradshaw Depression Tour" sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.

  • Delta Burke for the "Go On and Live" campaign, which promoted Effexor XR, made by Wyeth.

  • Athlete Greg Louganis and actor Chad Allen for GlaxoSmithKline's antidepressants.

Viewers see these ads and assume that the drugs must be safe if their "trusted" celebrities are promoting them. But what's often overlooked is the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars that the celebrities are being paid to do so.

Do the endorsements do their job? Yes, according to a study by Julie M. Donohue of the University of Pittsburgh and Ernst R. Berndt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They found that while marketing antidepressants to consumers doesn't affect which brand is chosen, it does increase the number of drugs that are prescribed.

"Pop Politics"

And then there are the celebrities who appear either endorsing political figures or promoting political views. According to Dr. John Orman, a political science professor who was interviewed on Mark Kelly's "Pop Politics," the line between politics and celebrity is crossed in four main ways:

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton: Politician or Celebrity?

  1. Politicians who are viewed as celebrities, and treated as such (The Kennedys, Bill Clinton, etc.)
  2. Celebrities who are viewed as politicians (Michael Moore, Charlton Heston)
  3. Celebrities who endorse candidates and raise money for them
  4. Celebrities bypassing the political system and spreading their own political issue (Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, etc.)

And, of course, we also have celebrities becoming actual politicians, such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Says Dr. Orman, "We have politicians acting like celebrities, and we have celebrities acting like politicians. And it's all part of the media milieu. It's for ratings. It's for coverage. It's for people to watch." In short, American politics have largely become blurred with American entertainment.

Expensive Clothing/Shoes

While celebrities have been promoting products for some time, they haven't been promoting the expensive "status" products of today.

Air Jordan sneakers (anywhere from $100 to over $200) for your 12-year-old, JLO by Jennifer Lopez jeans for your teen, Gucci, Prada, Luis Vuitton anything for the college (and even high school) kid. Why do kids (and grown-ups) need to spend so much money on shoes, clothing and handbags? It's all part of our star-crazed culture, which goes hand-in-hand with an appearance-crazed culture. We see the stars wearing a certain brand (they all announce who they're wearing, perhaps because they've been given the clothing for free in exchange), and we want it too.

"You have to have sympathy for teenagers; it's a lot to deal with," says Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State's Delaware County campus. "I have always likened the way kids get dressed up to this song that Fred Astaire used to sing about putting on his top hat, putting on his white tie. That is what kids do when they dress for school because they're on social display. It is like going on stage."

Adults, too, can succumb to the need to buy outrageously priced goods, just for the sake of fitting in at work or in social situations. It seems the stakes, and price tags, of wearing certain clothing or carrying certain handbags just keep getting higher and higher, and if we as adults can't resist it, how can we expect our kids to?

"God knows what's next," said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, "The general rule of thumb, what kids do almost always reflects what goes on in the adult world."

Do Celebrities Even Use the Products They Promote?

This is a debated question, and one that perhaps only the celebrities can honestly answer. As a consumer, you really have no way of knowing whether Delta Burke has used Effexor (and had a good experience) or whether Tiger Woods drives a Buick. Of course, this also begs the question, even if they do, why is that important to you?

Michael Jordan may be a great basketball player, but does that really also make him an expert on batteries, underwear, hamburgers, soft drinks and the gazillion other products he endorsed? Does he really use them? Who really cares?

The Greatest Endorser Ever?

In the end, we all have to make our own decisions about the food we eat, the drugs we take, the cosmetics we use, the politics we believe, and the clothing we wear. Personal responsibility may not be in vogue, it may not be what many celebrities are "wearing," but nonetheless, it is the only antidote that works in the here-and-now:

We can choose to be bedazzled by people who happen to be very good at singing, sports, acting, or politicking (or not even very good, just very popular), elevate them to God-like statuses and believe them when they're paid millions to tell us which erectile dysfunction drug or pizza we should choose because they say so.

Or we can choose to remember (and teach our kids) that they're as human as the rest of us - to quote the father of's chief editor, to remember that "their sh#@ stinks too" - and take their endorsements with a heap of caution. Or ignore them altogether.

Recommended Reading

Imaginary Friends are Perfectly Safe and Even Beneficial for Kids

The Real Friend Test: How to Understand Who Your Real Friends Are


The New York Times March 21, 2005

IndyStar April 7, 2005

The Oakland Press March 9, 2005

Irish Health

Entrepreneur's Start-Ups Magazine

CBS News

CBS News: Pop Politics

Bucks County Courier Times

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