Sunday, January 9, 2011

Selling out

Without committing myself one way or another on the whole “are they selling out or aren’t they” debate (yet), I can at least see why celebrities endorse products. They’re paid to. If someone offers you a truckload of money to tell people to wear Nike trainers, that gives you a reason to tell people to wear them that you didn’t have before. Maybe it’s wrong to decide which trainers to endorse on the basis of who pays you rather than on the basis of who makes the best trainers. Maybe I’d vote for a party who said they’d ban paid celebrity endorsements. But it’s not illegal yet, and I can see what motivates the celebrities.

What I can’t see is why it works. People see Tiger Woods or Terry Wogan or whoever telling them to drink Coca-Cola or what have you, and they know they’ve been paid to do this, but they still respond by drinking Coca-Cola. Apparently, some people really respond this way. I hope I don’t, and you presumably don’t, but some people do. They must, or celebrity endorsements would be bad business. I’ve got a few theories about how it works, and I’m not happy about any of them.

My first theory is that people are extremely naive. They understand that celebrities are paid to endorse the products they endorse, but they think they pick the products they really like, and see the fee as a kind of bonus, or thankyou, or expenses. Or perhaps they’ve been watching Peep Show and think that money’s an energy and a lot of it seems to flow towards celebrities. If some of this is as fees for their autonomous and principled endorsements, well, that’s just the way the world works.

If people aren’t this naive, maybe they’re just suggestible and confused. Consciously they know that the celebrity is just doing what they’re paid to do, but unconsciously it still makes them want the product, as if the celebrity had endorsed it out of principle and for free. This doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. If a century or so of hilarious psychology experiments have taught us anything it’s that even intelligent people are easily manipulated in spite of themselves.

The third possibility is that putting a Nike logo on a celebrity is like putting one on a pretty girl. People like things they see next to things they like, so this will make the celebrity’s fans like the product.

So, are the celebrities selling out? I think it’s fairly obvious that if the second theory turns out to be true, celebrity endorsements are like subliminal advertising and it’s arbitrary not to ban the former once we’ve banned the latter. Even if we don’t ban endorsements, if that’s how they work then the people involved are much like subliminal advertisers. If the third theory is right, then I suppose the celebrities are selling out their fame, but only in the way that pretty people in car ads are selling out their prettiness. If the first theory is true, then celebrities who endorse products they wouldn’t endorse for free are, in a way, liars. But they are only lying to extremely naive people. At least they’re not lying to me.

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