- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Star of stage, screen and whatever: The cachet of Hollywood may be fading. A study released yesterday by British and Swiss behavioral researchers suggests we pay little heed to celebrity endorsements. Only 20 percent of the respondents, in fact, said they were influenced by pitches from the rich and famous.

Advertisements featuring luminaries such as Brad Pitt “are less effective than those featuring ordinary people,” the study said.

“This could mean that millions spent by the advertising industry on getting top actors and top quality sports stars to give their names to products is unnecessary,” said Brett Martin of the University of Bath in England’s West Country, who collaborated with scientists at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen.

“Advertisers spend a lot of money on celebrity endorsements, and they wouldn’t keep doing it if it wasn’t effective,” countered Noreen Jenney, founder of the California-based Celebrity Endorsement Network, which has paired such famous folks as William Shatner, Sylvester Stallone and Vanna White with a bevy of eager companies.

New technology, Ms. Jenney contends, will only expand the practice.

“I don’t see the business slowing down. What’s more, there’s a historical precedent for this,” she continued. “Stars have been pitching products for decades in print, radio, television.”

Indeed, the famous were lending names and images to patent medicine and cigars by 1899, according to a University of Florida history of the genre. The appeal seems intact. A 1909 tobacco card featuring baseball great Honus Wagner, for example, sold for $2.35 million to an anonymous collector on Monday.

But British researcher Mr. Martin is convinced that celebrity appeal isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the audience. He exposed 298 students to mock-up ads for a digital camera that featured invented testimonials from both youthful peers and famous personalities.

“Celebrities can be effective, but we found that many people were more convinced by an endorsement from a fictional fellow student,” Mr. Martin said.

Celebrities may not seem cool enough to a generation that frequents YouTube.com and “citizen journalist” Web sites offering fame, community and ready access to the next big thing, the research suggested. The student respondents wanted to be assured that the camera in question was hip enough to impress their peers, “rather than approved by celebrities like David Beckham, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson.”

The findings might not bode well for perfumeries, clothing manufacturers and other retailers that tie in their products with the famous.

The art and science of the celebrity pitch, meanwhile, continue to be examined. One Virginia Tech psychological study found that the public will follow the example of celebrities whom they perceive as “successful.” Yet University of Washington research revealed that the intrusion of recognizable celebrities in voice-overs actually distracted listeners from selling points.

Ray Moynihan, author of the 2004 book “Selling Sickness,” is disturbed by celebrities who peddle drugs, noting at the time that there is no “formal requirement for stars or media outlets to spell out drug side effects.” Another problem with celebrity marketing is that “the public is often not even informed whether a celebrity is receiving money from a drug company,” Mr. Moynihan said.

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