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Hollywood Shills: Celebs in TV ads

Stars from Sting to Lisa Ling are revving their careers with spots in TV commercials

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Sting fans were shocked by the message in the … motorcar. In the Jaguar ad, the ex-Police singer kicks back in a sleek black ride as his ”Desert Rose” wails in the background. Why is Mr. Integrity doing car commercials? Is he hard up for cash? Hard up for fans might be more like it. But the Sting spot isn’t your typical celeb sellout. Rather, it’s the latest example of a star using an ad to sell himself — and reach another generation of fans in the process.

To understand this brave new world of celebrity shilling, consider the thorny beginnings of ”Desert Rose,” a track on Sting’s album Brand New Day. When the CD was released last September, it was largely ignored by Britney Spears-obsessed radio. But as the Jaguar ad, which debuted in March, kicked into gear, ”Desert Rose” blossomed into a hit. Two weeks ago, the aptly titled album cracked Billboard‘s top 10.

The success of ”Desert Rose” is doubly sweet because it was Sting’s manager, Miles Copeland — and not the car company — who proposed using snippets of the video (which happened to include numerous shots of the company’s curvy S-Type) for a Jaguar spot. ”I’m facing a huge problem in the marketplace,” says Copeland. ”With the mergers of record companies, radio stations, the tightening playlists of MTV and VH1, the opportunity to get on TV in any meaningful way is so against an artist who’s been around for 10 years. You have to open your mind. If you don’t, you miss out.”

Actually, Sting is just following the playbook of musicians like Moby, who clicked with Madison Avenue before crossing over to mainstream music fans. But this isn’t a rock-only phenom. ”Commercials are just another avenue for [actors] to creatively get their brand out there,” explains Peter Hess, codirector of the celebrity endorsement division at Creative Artists Agency. ”And the celebrity’s brand is their image.”

The new Hollywood ad rationale goes like this: You get a chance to play characters you wouldn’t otherwise get to play. Think Sela Ward in that Catwomanish Sprint spot. Or Lisa Ling playing coquettish croquet with boy-toys for Old Navy (though she was later accused of playing a stereotyped Asian-American woman). And by becoming a Clairol girl, Will & Grace‘s Debra Messing isn’t just promoting hair coloring, she’s branding her ”image.”

Of course, there is the matter of moola. Daisy Sinclair, head of casting and senior partner at Ogilvy & Mather, says celebs can expect a multimillion-dollar contract for a commercial campaign. And that’s not all. Jamie Lee Curtis is a VoiceStream Wireless stockholder and is often feted at the fledgling communications firm’s company events. One of Sting’s other ad ventures, Compaq, is sponsoring his current U.S. tour (its ironic ads show the pop star being pitched ways to sell out — wink, wink).

Does this mean the days of self-respecting artists sneaking off to Japan to make million-dollar ads are over? No, says O&M’s Sinclair: ”Sometimes the deal is just too good to pass up.” Still, watch for more celeb spokespersons to start, um, adding up. ”With the converging media markets,” says CAA’s Hess, ”celebrities are realizing it’s not just about TV and movies anymore.”

Additional reporting by Nicholas Fonseca