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Everybody from Paul Newman to Pee-wee Herman is a commodity

Everybody from Paul Newman to Pee-wee Herman is a commodity — Advertisers use movie stars to hawk their wares

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Tina Turner drives a Plymouth, Michael J. Fox drinks Diet Pepsi, Sheena Easton pumps iron at Jack La Lanne, Bill Cosby eats Jell-O Pudding Pops, Carol Alt drinks Amaretto di Saronno, Tip O’Neill carries an American Express card — never before have so many celebrities sold their names to so many products for so much money.

A few years ago, advertising analysts were predicting the demise of celebrity endorsements — yet today Madison Avenue is churning out more star-studded ads than ever. Just look at the Cola Wars: Last year alone, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola hired a combined total of more than 60 stars to plug their soft drinks, paying huge sums ($3 million to George Michael, $5 million to Madonna, $10 million to Michael Jackson) for their on-air promotions.

”When you use a celebrity in an ad, you get instant awareness,” explains Clive Chajet, chairman of Lippincott & Margulies, a New York consulting firm that creates images for companies like Nynex and Nissan. ”You get immediate attention. That’s very important to advertisers these days.”

Celebrities have always lent their names to products — Ronald Reagan was once a TV spokesman for General Electric — but in the last 10 years, ad contracts have become one of Hollywood’s biggest cash crops: By most industry estimates, the number of celebrity ads has at least doubled in the last decade. Even stars who once sniffed at doing commercials, such as Paul Newman and Meryl Streep, are turning up as pitchmen for companies like American Express.

”Let me put it to you this way,” says Jerry Saviola, celebrity talent negotiator for Grey Advertising in New York. ”Ten years ago, my job didn’t even exist.”

It’s not only that celebrity ads are more plentiful — they’re also more sophisticated. Once stars merely announced their sponsor’s message; today they frequently are the message, defining a product’s image with their own personalities and attitudes: Nikes are cool for kids because Spike Lee says so, the Gap is hip for the thirtysomething set because Peter Horton poses in its clothes, and Maidenform makes super underwear because Christopher Reeve appears in its ads.

”There’s less and less distinction between consumer products these days,” Chajet explains. ”What’s the difference between Coke and Pepsi? There really isn’t any. So advertisers have to imbue their products with a particular image — they have to separate them from each other by creating different consumer perceptions. And celebrities can be very useful in doing that.”

Casting a celebrity commercial is now practically a science. Every aspect of a prospective endorser — his familiarity, popularity, and perceived personality deficiencies — is examined in microscopic detail. One New York firm, Marketing Evaluations, surveys 1,800 people to come up with its highly secret and influential Q-ratings, grades determined by dividing a star’s positive appeal by his name recognition. Bill Cosby, for instance, is currently number one, with a Q-rating of 55, while Jerry Stiller clocks in near the bottom with a Q-rating of 10.

But for all the marketing research, do any of these celebrity ads actually work? Some skeptics don’t think so. ”If anything, (celebrity campaigns) have a bad effect,” says Dave Vadehra, president of Video Storyboard Tests, a research firm that tracks consumer attitudes about advertising. In 1984, Vadehra’s studies found that only 26 percent of those surveyed felt positively about celebrity ads; last year that number fell to 17 percent. ”The only reason you see so many celebrity ads is because they’re the easiest and laziest way to get media attention,” Vadehra says. ”But it doesn’t sell many products.”