Breaking News! Celebrity Ads Don’t Really Sell!

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Have you ever wondered if celebrities in ads really sell a product? Wonder no more. An exhaustive study says there's only one star that's effective at moving product.

Tiger Woods has another dishonor to add to his awful 2010: He was the worst celebrity endorser of the year.

Woods possesses what researchers call “negative lift.” That means his mere presence in a TV commercial not only won’t sell the product he’s hawking, it’ll hurt it. So last year’s Nike commercial – called “Did You Learn Anything?” – didn’t teach customers to buy sneakers. Or so says an exhaustive new study into celebrity endorsements.

“Tiger’s ads in 2010 did very little to inform consumers about the products he was endorsing – they were all about Tiger,” says Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix, an advertising research firm. “This was confusing to consumers. At the end of the day, his endorsement likely cost his sponsors much more than just the fee for his services.”

Last week, Daboll’s company released a 16-page report called Celebrity Advertisements: Exposing a Myth of Advertising Effectiveness. It concludes that, with only a handful of exceptions, all celebrities have “negative lift,” not just Tiger Woods.

“This research proves unequivocally that, contrary to popular belief, the investment in a celebrity in TV advertising is very rarely worthwhile,” Daboll says. “It is the advertising message that creates the connection with the viewer in areas such as relevance, information, and attention, and this remains the most important driver of ad effectiveness.”

Basically, it’s the age-old ad problem: If Betty White is funny in the Snickers commercial that debuted during last year’s Super Bowl, does that sell more Snickers or just sell Betty White? After all, she parlayed that commercial into a career revival.

Ace Metrix says that was the problem with other celebrity endorsers last year, from Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) to Donald Trump (Macy’s). Only one celebrity bucks the trend. Oprah Winfrey. Whether it was Liberty Mutual or Progressive insurance, Oprah can sell stuff just by mentioning it. Explains Daboll…

“What’s important about Oprah’s performance as a spokesperson was that each of her ads delivered a highly relevant message: ‘don’t text and drive.’ Her ads were not selling or pushing a particular product, but discussing a highly relevant and information-laden topic. Oprah, coupled with this message, not surprisingly, performed very well across all gender and age groups. The most effective ads do not merely appeal to a single target audience but across a wide, general audience. Celebrities are often polarizing, even within demographic targets, which creates additional uncertainty and risk beyond the campaign message.”

After studying 2,600 TV commercials and ranking them according to a complex scale, Ace Metrix deduced, “Fewer than 12 percent of ads using celebrities exceeded a 10 percent lift versus average industry norms, and nearly 20 percent of celebrity ads yielded negative lift scores in excess of 10 percent.”

But Oprah had a lift of 27 percent – which Ace Metrix calls “a spectacular result, especially considering the product she was promoting was insurance.”

Stacy Johnson

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