In the last few months, tabloids and gossip magazines have had a field day reporting on who has just checked into rehab, shown signs of an eating disorder, or gotten arrested. The stars of these stories are usually young celebrities who could potentially serve as examples for today's youth, raising the question, what happens when the shining role models in the spotlight are consistently falling apart?
A decade ago, celebrities made the news not for their rampant drug abuse, but for their blossoming careers. The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were teen heartthrobs, well-received because they were young enough to relate to teens and tweens worldwide. After playing the title character on the television show "Lizzie McGuire," Hilary Duff became someone every tween girl could relate to.
The fact that these new artists didn't become famous due to accounts of debauchery didn't mean they were 100 percent clean-cut either. The Backstreet Boys, along with other boy bands at the time, had a range of personas they projected in public - among them, the "Sensitive One," the "Bad Boy" and the "Flirty One." Britney raised eyebrows with her increasingly provocative clothing as her musical career matured.
Yet, these celebrities were still able to serve as competent role models for the younger generation because they were known for their talents and accomplishments. Their rise was harmonious with the efforts of their promoters. Marketing was almost effortless - there was little convincing required by marketers, and there was no reason not to promote these celebrities to tweens.
But marketing today's young celebrities is altogether different. What are we supposed to do when the young and the famous are being portrayed in magazines and tabloids as having taken a turn for the worse? Some of the notable earlier cases of celebs getting not-so-great publicity include Jessica Simpson's ditzy blunders in "Newlyweds," and Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie's parody of themselves in "The Simple Life."
Unfortunately, ditziness was nowhere near the extent of the negative imagery. Nicole Richie, soon after her show started, became the poster child for eating disorders, shocking and disappointing her fans with snapshots of her emaciated figure, to say nothing of hers and Paris' dui arrests and Paris' widely circulated sex tape. Lindsay Lohan's stardom reached an all-time high after her success in Mean Girls, but she's recently been known for her alleged cocaine use, alcohol abuse and stints in rehab. Even the beloved Britney, who was a favorite of young girls everywhere, seemingly lost her mind when she made the news for shaving her head - followed quickly by entry into rehab.
But is it even fair to put these young celebrities in the "role model" category? So many of us were able to figure out who we were in the confines of our colleges and universities, with other like-minded young people. There were no cameras capturing our every misstep. Are we participants in the destruction of these teen and tween celebrities?
Earlier this year, I coined the term Celeb-Zero: a trend where showcasing only the worst acts of a celebrity quickly depletes their celebrity "stock." Weekly magazines, blogs, entertainment shows, and even mainstream news have all contributed to this trend.
What does this mean for marketers? There is an obvious and urgent need to find new role models. One option is to focus on emerging artists who may be on the rise, but are not yet full-blown celebrities. These artists are the ones who have the potential to become famous based on their talents and have not yet ruined their image with tabloid disaster stories.
They are also the ones who will be more open to developing a closer relationship with their fan base, which provides plenty of marketing potential. But more simply, because we cannot rely on existing celebs, we are going to have to go back to developing properties focused on animation and other creative works. Whether it is a book series like Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew and The Baby-sitter's Club, or animations like The Incredibles and "Kim Possible," a promotional shift must be made so tweens can still have an effective role model in the media. And we can never forget the power of creating a strong brand with a great consumer relationship. As I always say, you'll never see the Nike swoosh passed out in an alley after a late night of partying.