Aspirational Nonsense

We have our two teams selected for Super Bowl 50, which only means one thing: two straight weeks of inane advertisements featuring celebrities shilling products they don’t use and you don’t need.  Many of the MBA/MS in Sport Management dual candidates have been working on case studies for celebrity sports endorsements in marketing, and I can’t help but feel uneasy and strange about this entire concept.  Regardless of the endorsement, my mind always settles on two key questions: does this sponsorship actually work, and if so, what does that say about our culture?


The first question brings about some interesting answers.  While traditional marketers continue to go back to the well of celebrity endorsements to sell anything from Papa John’s Pizza to greek yogurt, some recent literature has emerged that questions the efficacy of relying on celebrity endorsements in marketing materials.  In an Adweek piece from April 2012, Lucia Moses dug into the axiom that celebrity endorsements help sell products in a cost-effective manner.  She referenced GM’s decision to dump Tiger Woods as a spokesperson a full year before his extra marital scandal came to light.  After dumping $50 million into the relationship, Buick VP Bob Lutz decided to finally pull the plug on the experiment.  Why?  Because the juxtaposition of Tiger Woods next to Buick automobiles just did not help GM move their product.


It’s certainly possible that the Tiger Woods example is an aberration and that other celebrities offer better ROI for marketing purposes.  Indeed, no one ever really bought into the idea that Tiger Woods would be caught dead driving around a Buick, so this could just be an example of a poor match between product and sponsor.  However, if this is true, what does it say about American culture that our consumers can be so easily manipulated by the simple presence of celebrities close to a corporate brand?


The corporate belief in the power of celebrity endorsement is a troubling phenomenon, even if it’s nothing new.  If our attraction to a product endorsement is subconscious, we can be excused of our vanity; average consumers can’t protect their subconscious strings from being pulled by experienced corporate puppeteers.  But if our affinity for products that are endorsed by celebrities is a a conscious phenomenon and we are thus attracted to consume based off of the shallow placement of a product close to a famous face, then our culture is in deep need of introspection and intervention.


Before I climb too far up on my soapbox, I will freely admit that I feed into this frenzy as well.  My obsession with college football is objectively absurd, and my interest in the collegiate decisions of elite high school football players is flat out weird.  We all have our dirty pleasures, and there’s probably something positive we gain from this relatively mindless pursuit.  But if our mindless pursuits begin to snowball into entire industries built up around the concept of celebrity, then we simply must take a step back and gain some perspective.


Celebrity is not an inherent virtue or vice, it’s simply a measurement of how well known an individual is.  The attachment of an individual celebrity to a product or service says nothing about the product, service, or even celebrity.  When Peyton Manning tries to sell you some Papa John’s pizza, is there a particular reason we should take his advice on the matter?  I don’t think he majored in culinary arts at Tennessee.  When Ronda Rousey tries to get me to ever buy something made at a Hardee’s, is there any objectively logical reason I should pay attention?  Of course not.  But we do, because our culture has slowly built up celebrities into demigods, and the corporate interests that be would never let a good demigod go to waste.


Overall, my point is simple: let’s make 2016 the year we question celebrity.  When a Kardashian gets her seventh show, let’s ask ourselves why the world needs their content.  When a Heisman trophy winner endorses some awful Nissan, let’s ask ourselves what credentials this individual has to make said recommendation.  Ultimately, let’s check our celebrity worship just for a few seconds, and let’s teach the next generation to value what is ethical instead of what is famous.

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