Celebrities and advertising -- How well stars like Christie Brinkley, Spike Lee, and Jeff Goldblum sell

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated November 27, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Here’s some truth about advertising: Most commercials starring celebrities are uncommonly bad. They come off either as grating hard sells (Candice Bergen for Sprint) or lame burlesques of the star’s persona (Michael Richards for Tommy Hilfiger). Only rarely — Jerry Seinfeld in his cleverly written American Express ads, Bill Cosby with his sweetly grumpy Jell-O classics — do celeb endorsements sparkle. This season’s no exception. Here’s a heapin’ helping of recent flops, and a couple of rare triumphs.

Christie Brinkley for the Newspaper Association of America
And now for one of the silliest sentences in commercial history: ”As a model, it’s important to me to keep up with the world around me.” In this spot (part of a series that also includes Meryl Streep and Jon Bon Jovi), the former Sports Illustrated swimsuit babe makes a smiley pitch for the joys of the morning paper. Christie, I don’t tell you what shade of lip gloss to wear; please don’t advise me on my reading habits. C-

Don Rickles for Fidelity Investments
These Friars Club-meets-401(k) seminar spots are comedically bankrupt. In one, Rickles, who seems shoehorned into the ad, tells a limp airplane joke, then gets unsolicited financial advice from white-haired Wall Street whiz Peter Lynch, who has all the charisma of a Dow Corning annual report. A pointless insult to our intelligence. C

Spike Lee for Nike
A worthy successor to the brilliant Spike-and-Mike campaign of the late ’80s. Lee, mocking his rep as an obnoxious Knicks fan (and making the most of the current NBA lockout), gleefully trash-talks an eighth-grade girls’ B-ball team. ”Where’s your game at? Where’s your game at?” he hectors one lass. Other recent Nike ads are almost as sharp: In one, Lee and chopsocky star Jackie Chan coo about Pop-a-Shot, the miniature B-ball arcade game; in another, Dyan Cannon cheerleads a hoops contest for middle-aged men. A

Cuba Gooding JR. for Pepsi One
A quick showbiz lesson: High-decibel energy after an Oscar win is fun. High-decibel energy in overplayed commercials is annoying. In one misguided spot, the Jerry Maguire catchphrase king bellows about Pepsi to the employees of a computer company. In another, he shrieks about the new diet soda to nervous parachutists. As low on wit as the drink is on calories. C+

Dennis Miller for 10-10-220 long-distance service
Why must all phone ads be as annoying as telemarketing calls in the middle of dinner? Smug comic Miller sneers: ”Okay, people. This is a phone. This is a dollar. You still with me?” Not if I have a remote. Miller’s antics are rivaled by those of David Arquette (strained Gen-X wackiness for 1-800-CALL-ATT), George Carlin (strained crabbiness for 10-10-220), and a phone booth full of other celebs. No doubt, phone companies crank up the ’90s attitude to compensate for dull product — eye-glazing rates and numbers. But these spots make you long for the days of AT&T’s unabashed tearjerkers. F

Tom Arnold for WebTV
If any genre was made for Arnold, it’s commercials. He’s always smacked of a smarmy-but-likeable Midwestern salesman. In this spot, Tombo gushes about sending photos of his kids over the Internet with WebTV. ”Of course, I don’t have any kids of my own yet, so I’m gonna use this phony television family to help me demonstrate.” There are worse ways to spend 30 seconds. B+

Jeff Goldblum for iMac
The good news is, this is a perfect pairing of star and product: a quirky, funny-looking actor for a quirky, funny-looking computer. The bad news is, Goldblum’s monologues — one on the inanity of beige computers, another on the frustrations of e-mail — come off as precious and condescending. A nice opportunity trashed. B-

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