The Celebrity Pitch
Rider McDowell was struggling to come up with a way to spread the word about his wife's invention -- an herbal cold remedy called Airborne. The Carmel, Calif., couple had succeeded in getting its product, a powdered mix made from a blend of vitamins, amino acids, and herbal extracts, into a number of small pharmacies. But McDowell wanted to break into the big drugstore chains. The question was how. Then, in a flash of inspiration, it hit him: Greg Brady.
To be sure, the eldest sibling on the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch might seem to have little to do with fighting off the sniffles. And Barry Williams, the actor who portrayed him, hadn't had a hit in years. But McDowell, a pop culture buff, knew that many baby boomers have an unusually deep connection to The Brady Bunch -- each episode of which reportedly has aired more than 100,000 times. He also had heard that Williams was easygoing and reliable, and after tracking down the actor's agent, learned that he was looking for work.
Rather than using Williams as a solo pitchman, McDowell decided to pair the actor with other forgotten TV stars -- including Butch Patrick (Eddie from The Munsters) and Johnny Whitaker (Jody on Family Affair) -- in a series of quirky ads that ran in magazines and on TV. McDowell's idea was to tap into the goodwill of an entire generation of couch potatoes. As it happened, one of them was Oprah Winfrey -- who, after seeing Airborne's ads and trying the product, endorsed it on national TV. The rest, as they say in show biz, is history. Airborne now ranks as the nation's best-selling over-the-counter natural cold remedy, with 2004 revenue of some $24 million. Says McDowell: "Entrepreneurs who take the celebrity route are instantly vaulted into another category."
The celebrity pitchman, of course, is as old as capitalism itself. And these days, America is more celebrity-mad than ever. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels, nearly every old movie, TV show, and vintage sporting event is back on the air, thrusting has-been performers back into the limelight. Meanwhile, reality-TV programs like American Idol, The Apprentice, and Survivor are churning out an endless stream of pseudo-celebrities -- most of them eager to extend their time in the limelight any way they can.
All of this puts the celebrity pitch well within the reach of entrepreneurs -- even those without big advertising budgets. But deploying celebrities is not as easy as it looks, and the advertising world is divided on the matter. For one thing, it leaves you open to charges that you're cynically trying to spiff up a product that can't sell itself. What's more, tying your brand to any individual -- especially a B-list celebrity -- is a risk, says Bart Cleveland, a director at Sawyer Riley Compton, an ad agency in Atlanta. "You're worsening your brand in a way that's difficult to overcome," he says.
But if you're careful, employing a celebrity can be worth the gamble. The right personality, for example, can help you connect with specific demographic groups -- especially baby boomers who grew up in front of the television. "It's nice to see the celebrities we grew up with aging and now speaking to us with products that affect us at these stages in our lives," says Jeff Stein, a media professor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Airborne's McDowell, for his part, figures he owes it all to the B list. His schoolteacher wife, Victoria Knight-McDowell, created Airborne in 1997 to fend off the viruses in her classroom. By 1999, Knight-McDowell Labs had sales of $1.4 million, mostly from a chain of small drugstores. That's when McDowell began to think about going after national retailers such as CVS and Rite Aid.
Around that time, McDowell read an article about the exploding popularity of Survivor and gambled that he could generate some hype by paying Dirk Been, a recent castoff from the show, $5,000 to pitch Airborne in print and on the radio. "We did it as a PR stunt and it got blasted all over," McDowell says. "The media wrote more than 200 articles about it." Next came Barry Williams. "Our product's biggest demographic is baby boomers who grew up on reruns," says McDowell. "They still think of Barry as part of their extended family." Plus, McDowell was able to get Williams for a modest fee of about $100,000.
Plenty of well-known personalities will work for far less; many former athletes can be had for as little as $50,000. Fees depend on the stature of the celebrity and the type of campaign. A TV spot, for example, costs more than a print ad but less than a 30-minute infomercial. Contacting potential pitchers is easier than you might expect. The Screen Actors Guild provides an actor-locator service. Another option is to go through a middleman like Jonathan Holiff, president of the Hollywood-Madison Group, which helps companies recruit celebrities. Holiff has developed a proprietary database of 10,000 stars that he calls "The Fame Index." Clients can plug in up to 250 different search points -- including fees, interests, charities, and medical conditions -- to find the best celebrity match for their product. "Most clients approach us with a specific celebrity in mind, but we teach them to avoid using their personal bias," Holiff says. "The key is to study your likely customer."
It's equally important to study your celebrity. Many endorsement campaigns involve personal appearances and guest spots on television and radio, so your celebrities had better be able to discuss your product without a script. It also helps if they actually believe in what they're selling. "I've turned down more deals than I've accepted," says Barry Williams. "But I'd use Airborne even if I wasn't the spokesperson." That's not always the case. In one instance, actress Cybill Shepherd, then the spokesperson for the National Beef Council, told an interviewer that she was "trying to stay away from red meat."
Which helps explain why skeptics remain unconvinced. Cleveland, for example, has talked clients out of taking the celebrity route. Link your fate to a celebrity, he says, and any mistakes your pitchperson makes become your problem as well. (See Bryant, Kobe, and Simpson, O.J.) And it's a particularly bad idea to enlist reality-TV cast members, he says. "Who remembers anyone from that first season of Survivor, besides the naked guy?" Cleveland asks.
In case you've forgotten, the naked guy was Richard Hatch, the former management consultant and winner of the first season. Since then, Hatch has endorsed a Boston radio station and appeared in the national "Got milk?" ad campaign. These days, however, he's most famous for failing to report his million-dollar Survivor payday to the IRS, for which he faces federal tax evasion charges. Not surprisingly, he's said to be available for work.
Sidebar: Enlisting the B List
Their stars may be dim, but B-listers can still fire up an ad campaign.
|The Celebrity||The Product||The Campaign||The Impact|
|Lindsay Wagner, Star of 1970s TV drama The Bionic Woman||Select Comfort mattresses||Ten-minute infomercials running on cable television||Product inquiries jumped 28%, says Diane Utzman-O'Neill, VP of brand management.|
|Stacie J, Fired in season two of The Apprentice||Casino Fortune, an online casino||Appeared at promotional events and in print and e-mail ads aimed at gamblers||A 43% increase in the number of 25- to 40-year-old clients, says casino manager Dennis Rose|
|Zora Andrich, 2003 winner of Fox's Joe Millionaire||NutriSystem weight-loss products||National print and TV campaign in which Andrich discusses her weight-loss woes||Sales jumped 85%, says president George Jankovic.|
|Shirley Jones, Crooning mother on The Partridge Family||Adult diapers made by HDIS||Jones talks in print, on radio, and on TV about her friends' incontinence.||Jones's ads were up to 67% more effective than prior ads, says president Bruce Grench.|
Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.