Why the Caveman Loves the Pitchman
A little celebrity and a shrewd marketing strategy can go a long way to sell a product. The key is understanding how the human brain really works.
By Thomas Mucha

(Business 2.0) – In February, Nike launched a national TV campaign for the Air Jordan XX--a shoe that celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nike's marketing partnership with Michael Jordan. The four spots feature director Spike Lee reading to wide-eyed schoolchildren about the accomplishments of history's greatest basketball player. Nike's two-decades-long partnership with Jordan has certainly been a marketer's dream: Nike is Jordan. Jordan is Nike. The pairing turned the company into a cultural icon, while positioning Jordan as the primogenial pitchman.

The Jordan-Nike relationship is perhaps the best-known example of a marketing strategy that is as old as mass media itself: the celebrity endorsement. More than a fifth of all advertising today features a famous face, voice, or image. According to American Public Opinion Survey and Market Research, some 72 percent of consumers who bought a product pitched by a celebrity said that it was the endorser who first grabbed their attention.

Celebrity, as everyone knows, sells. But what has been less clear--until recently--is why it has worked so well for so long.

Now science is offering up clues that are helping marketers understand not only why star power boosts product sales but also how to do the job more effectively. Researchers are developing a sophisticated understanding of how humans respond to different messages. They're pinpointing the auditory and visual stimuli associated with pleasure (and pain). They're also synthesizing this knowledge to create new disciplines like neuroeconomics and neuromarketing that specifically examine the relationship between human biology and consumer behavior.

"Demagogues and snake-oil salesmen have always known that people are encouraged by the popular and won over by the attractive," says James Bailey, an organizational behavioralist at George Washington University. "What's new are the neurochemical corollaries to these phenomena."

Old Brains, New Ideas

According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, our weakness for endorsements traces back to the hunter-gatherer societies of more than 10,000 years ago--or, more precisely, to the brains of those hunter-gatherers, which were basically the same as the brains we have today. For better or worse, we're hardwired to pay attention to celebrities. This condition isn't unique to humans; researchers at Duke University recently learned that rhesus monkeys will give up cherished treats --in other words, they'll actually "pay"--to peek at photographs of dominant troop leaders.

Modern man isn't much different, because our hunter-gatherer brains haven't adapted to the rigors of a mass-media society. When primitive man saw someone on the savanna, that person was actually there. Likewise, it was comforting when he or she turned out to be someone familiar. "We unconsciously feel that the people we see every day on TV are our friends," Kanazawa says. "It makes us more susceptible to product messages, because we're designed to trust our friends."

Neuroscientists call this the "mere exposure effect": The more we see a face, the more we like it. Brain scans would show that when Beyoncé pops up again and again in L'Oreal advertisements, dopamine and phenylethylamine flood our brains, triggering positive emotional states. The result: "If we see a celebrity time and time again, we start to like them," Bailey says.

Turning Science Into Profit

Yet one star does not fit all. To profit from this borrowed familiarity, a celebrity's personality and a product's attributes must be precisely matched.

Step one to finding this harmony: Know thyself. "Celebrity is one thing; your consumer demographic is another," says Jonathan Holiff, president of the Hollywood-Madison Group, a Los Angeles-based agency that pairs Fortune 500 companies with celebrities. To match a business with a star, Holiff's firm first defines the attributes that best suit the client's brand profile and target demographic. So, for example, General Motors could be associated with reliability or safety, while Procter & Gamble's products might be associated with cleanliness or wholesomeness.

Step two: Find celebrities who share these traits. Credibility is key. Holiff's firm uses a proprietary research tool called the Fame Index--a compilation of data on more than 10,000 stars and sports figures. Clients search for the right match by using up to 250 different attributes--age, sex, birthplace, interests, hobbies, ethnicity, charity affiliations, family history, medical conditions, and so on. When Eli Lilly wanted a celebrity spokesperson for a campaign promoting its Humalog insulin drug, Holiff's research indicated that former NFL star Howie Long's grandmother suffered from diabetes. Long got the gig, and Eli Lilly booked him on morning talk shows to discuss how patients could better manage the disorder.

Other matchmakers use consumer behavior to find the right fit. Market research firm ACNielsen has experimented with combining data on what people watch, do, and buy. Hypothetically, the data could show that consumers who purchase LL Cool J CDs also buy a lot of Michelob beer--suggesting that he would make a better brand match than, say, Eminem.

Step three: Confirm that the attributes match. At Hollywood-Madison, a shortlist of vetted candidates--from six to 30 names--is subjected to focus group research. "Context is key," Holiff explains. "You don't just ask, 'Do you like this person?' You ask, 'Do you like this person in this campaign, for this product, with this tagline?'"

Only after the consumer-tested list of candidates is in hand do you begin to reach out to celebrities. Contracts spelling out services, as well as the endorser's expected behavior, can be comically precise. According to Beyoncé's reported $4.7 million L'Oreal deal, signed in 2001, the singer must avoid Revlon and Clairol products, and L'Oreal reserves the right to inspect her hair--provided the company gives two weeks' notice.

And the price of fame? There are as many options as there are stars on Hollywood Boulevard, but in general, endorsement deals range from $75,000 for a two- or three-day press tour--an arrangement that might have Martin Scorsese promoting Philips's wide-screen TVs--to millions of dollars for a long-term contract, such as the reported $20 million Catherine Zeta-Jones got for her global endorsement deal with T-Mobile.

The Envelope, Please

For companies that execute a celebrity strategy effectively, that can be a good value. T-Mobile marketing executive Jim Goodwin says the carrier was looking for a "globally recognizable, fun, and sexy-cool" face to cut through the clutter of mobile-service advertising. After signing Zeta-Jones--and putting her face on TV, online, and in 1,400 retail stores--T-Mobile saw U.S. sales grow more than 25 percent.

Online travel agency Priceline wanted a celebrity to represent the future of travel. Beam up William Shatner, whose Captain Kirk persona is synonymous with going where no one has gone before. Crediting Kirk, Priceline says more than 90 percent of consumers are aware of its brand--a figure that puts the company in Yahoo and eBay territory. Yet Priceline's marketing still has room to grow; when the company paired Shatner with Leonard Nimoy last year, Web traffic spiked more than 50 percent.

American Express, after searching for a celeb who personifies credit cards--trustworthy, reliable, secure--settled on Robert DeNiro. According to consumer-loyalty research firm Brand Keys, AmEx's brand value--a measure of how consumers feel about the company--subsequently rose nearly 4 percent. The same study showed that Chanel No. 5's brand value rose 7 percent after that product was paired with the stylish and sophisticated Nicole Kidman. Buick's brand strength jumped 7.5 percent when it teamed with solid, dependable Tiger Woods.

Risks and Flops

Those are typical success stories. But celebrity endorsements are a high-wire act, and sometimes things go wrong. Misbehavior is one obvious risk. The travails of former endorsement stars O.J. "Run Through Airports" Simpson and Kobe "I'm Lovin' It" Bryant come immediately to mind, but celebrity itself is fickle. Slim-Fast ended Whoopi Goldberg's endorsement deal after she told sexually explicit jokes about President Bush at a fund-raising event for John Kerry last year. Nor are corporate executives immune to the mind-altering effects of celebrity worship; many are the CEOs who have signed ill-fated endorsement deals simply because they wanted to bask in the aura of their favorite stars.

The biggest risk, however, is a basic failure to find complementary attributes. In 2003, Chrysler paid $14 million to recruit Celine Dion, but consumers didn't buy the intended match between Dion's nuanced voice and Chrysler's automotive sophistication. Dealers complained, sales lagged, and Chrysler scrapped the campaign.

Even when brand and personality match, the results may not trickle down to the bottom line. Gap endorser Sarah Jessica Parker's sense of style clearly resonates with many shoppers--items worn by the Sex and the City star have "flown out of stores," the retailer says. Yet Gap's overall performance has been unremarkable, with same-store sales falling 3 percent in February. Nor do companies always get things right on the first try. Appliance maker Salton initially portrayed George Foreman as a boxer. But sales of its flagship George Foreman Grill surged only after the company hit on attributes that squared with the product's lifestyle: a barbecuing funnyman and father of eight hungry kids. Those traits proved so valuable that Salton later paid Foreman $138 million for long-term rights to his name and likeness.

Of course, in the realm where fame, fairy tales, and product sales intermingle, each celebrity has a role to play. And we lap it up like Spike Lee's schoolchildren: Parker is the finely adorned princess. DeNiro is a strong knight. Foreman is a court jester. Zeta-Jones plays the urbane queen, while His Airness remains the undisputed, Nike-wearing king--even after 20 long years.