Hulu decided to do something clever. It hired celebrity influencers--NBA stars Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo--and put them into a series of commercials it called "Hulu Sellouts." The whole point was to promote the streaming service while making it absolutely clear that the participation of the athletes was all about the money.
Influencers have become all the rage in marketing. However, if you're interested in effective marketing, you should wonder why. Often, influencer campaigns fall flat. Many of them rent their audiences, as branded content strategist Lena Katz showed when she turned an uncooked potato into a figure with a following in two weeks. Payless ShoeSource actually was clever and trolled a whole bunch of fashion influencers. Shortly before announcing that it was going out of business. Well, at least it was a last hurrah.
Hulu is making fun of the whole influencer approach and trying to let the audience feel like insiders who get the joke. It's quite similar to the RXBar ad last summer when the company hired Ice-T for one of its commercials. The actor and rapper says, "It's one of those commercials with a rapper--you can't even remember his name--who comes out and says something dumb about an RXBar."
There are two reasons for the direction that Hulu and RXBar took. One is the need to be clear on advertising regulations. The Federal Trade Commission says that if someone takes money to promote a product, they must explicitly say so in some manner. As Hulu vice president for content marketing Ryan Crosby told The Wall Street Journal, "Everyone is looking at what's happening in social promotions. You're not fooling anyone when you do these ads."
The other aspect is advertising as postmodernist statement, rather than postmodernist literature looking at an ad. It's an eyewink, letting consumers know that you know that they know what's really going on. If they give it that much thought.
There really isn't anything new about using influencers or making inside statements about their use. The pairing of recognizable names and brand promotion goes back a long way. Technically, you could say that pottery and china designer and manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood used royal warrants as endorsements, promoting his products as used by English royalty. In the late 19th century, companies employed trade cars featuring the brand and an image of a sports or entertainment figure. Tobacco companies made heavy use of name endorsers in the early 20th century.
There's also nothing new about using endorsements with tongue planted in cheek. This was a common device in the 1930s and 1940s on radio. Promotional messages were inserted into the middle of a comedy show, receiving the same insider view treatment that some marketers use today.
With the drive to using influencers and then finding new and clever ways to distinguish their brands from others, marketers have forgotten a lesson that's been underscored time and again. Whether you call them celebrities or influencers, it's not clear that celebrity or influencer ads necessarily work.
The celebrity and brand connection can work, such as when Meghan Markle wears a piece of clothing and then there's a run on the item. But that seems more an organic event.
In ads, often it's the celebrity or influencer, not the product, that's remembered. Ad industry giant David Ogilvy wrote about this years ago:
Viewers have a way of remembering the celebrity while forgetting the product. I did not know this when I paid Eleanor Roosevelt $35,000 to make a commercial for margarine. She reported that her mail was equally divided. "One-half was sad because I had damaged my reputation. The other half was happy because I had damaged my reputation. Not one of my proudest memories."
Although there aren't a lot of public studies that have compared use of celebrities with sales, there have been some that looked at various measures of ad effectiveness on television. Celebrity ads tended to perform at most equal to the average ad, and often worse.
Even if some influencer campaigns have worked, it seems like next to none compared with the vast number of supposed influencers taking money to promote things. And what happens when one of them ends up with bad personal publicity that is now tied to your brand?
Although not all influencer marketing is worthless, success depends on the particular person, the actual connection they have with an audience, and the appropriateness of the context to the brand. Amazon has its own group of influencers who reportedly work via affiliation links for percentages of sales, which means at least Amazon can track the effectiveness.
But if your marketing team or client shows a keen interest in using an influencer as an automatic win, maybe it's time to go back to a brainstorming session and see what other ideas everyone can come up with instead.