Media X: Pitch Imperfect

Considering that traffic was hurtling around me at 80 miles an hour, I probably should have been paying more attention to the road. But the radio was saying Michael Phelps stands to make $40 million or more in endorsement deals from his eight Olympic gold medals, and I was so staggered by the news, I took my eyes off the freeway and started yelling at the radio.

Driving distracted is never a good idea, but in Los Angeles, it's a death wish. And as I hypermiled toward the junction of the 101 and the 405, I was targeted by a toad behind me in a Lincoln Navigator with tinted windows, who started tailgating me and making menacing pistol shapes with his hand.

A vehiculo y vehiculo moment appeared imminent. I reached under the seat to make sure my piece was locked and loaded. But suddenly, the jerk peeled away from me to tailgate a beat-up Buick in the next lane. So I took my finger off the trigger, straightened the rearview mirror, and resumed yelling at the radio.

I know getting famous people to talk sweet about your stuff is one of the oldest marketing tactics in history. It's probably older than prostitution and maybe even more lucrative. And not just for actors or athletes.



A quick side-surf to Wikipedia, for example, revealed that even in the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII endorsed Vin Mariani, a "cocaine-laced patent medicine." Of course, this was also the first Holy Father to have a sound recording made of him, and the first to be filmed by a motion picture camera. Which he blessed afterward.

Leo clearly appreciated the power of positive spin.

Look, maybe the Pope's promotion packed a punch. I don't know, I'm not Catholic. But I have been writing about celebrity endorsements since the 1984 Olympics catapulted Mary Lou Retton to fame and fortune. And I think it's a criminal waste of money.

The celebrity's brand almost always overwhelms whatever is being endorsed, unless it's fashion or some other equally ephemeral pop-culture category, particularly anything aimed at adolescent boys or tween-aged girls.

A recent New York Times piece noted that celebrities appeared in 14% of all ads in the U.S. in 2007--double the percentage in 1997, according to Millward Brown data. Tellingly, the same article mentioned Omnicom shill shop Davie Brown Entertainment's famous Index of celebrities' pitch potency and remarked that "the one Davie Brown category in which most celebrities appear vulnerable is trust."

No, really?

In today's troubled and troublesome marketplace, trust is not an attribute that marketers can afford to dismiss, no matter how much refracted glamour a superstar's nod provides. It makes me gag to say it, but you're probably better off using social networks to generate positive word of mouth than throwing profane amounts of money at celebrity pitchpeople. Plus, you'll keep endorsement deal stories off the radio and vehicular mayhem in the San Fernando Valley to a minimum.

And if you do that, I'll buy any damn thing you want to sell.

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