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So, let’s talk Borrowed Interest in advertising.

If you’re into celebrity gazing, you were probably in hog heaven watching Sunday’s Super Bowl ads. A multitude of stars—from Christopher Walken to Beyoncé—strutted their stuff on what annually has become advertising’s biggest stage. Celebrity ads fall into a bucket that in trade terms is known as “borrowed interest.” Advertisers “borrow” famous faces for their ads (well not exactly borrow—CNN reported that the bigger stars get paid anywhere between $1 and $3 million) in hopes that their “shine” will shine favorably on the brands they advertise.

Sometimes it works. Take the Super Bowl ad where star Vince Vaughn stumps for BetMGM, the mega online sports betting enabler. Viewers see it’s good ‘ol Vince, but throughout the commercial he relentlessly pushes the brand so there’s balance between Vaughn’s notoriety and the message. In other words, they’ve managed to wrap Vince in BetMGM’s flag, not other way around. If you’re paying attention to the spot, you’d be hard pressed not to remember the advertiser.

But in many other cases—and the bigger the star, the bigger the problem—viewers will remember Beyoncé and completely forget the advertiser. It’s understandable. We all get star struck to a certain degree. At the end of the day, however, when that star has faded from your 90-inch LED screen and is back on a red carpet somewhere, advertisers would rather hope that you remember their product or service. Especially when they’ve shelled out a cool $3 million for talent, not to mention $7 million in media costs for the thirty seconds of air time during this year’s game. And I won’t bore you with the added production costs.

Consider the Uber Eats spot featuring a years-later reunion between Friends stars Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer. If you didn’t see the spot, it’s about these two reencountering each other on a back lot in Hollywood. Schwimmer greets Aniston with liquid eyes and an effusive hug; she is beset with amnesia and claims not to remember him, rendering him impotent. But any association of these two with the actual brand is so incidental it’s practically nonexistent. (And you have to wonder if stars with personal chefs on retainer even know what Uber Eats is.) IMHO, the average viewer watching this spot is more likely to stream a few Friends episodes on Amazon Prime Video when the Super Bowl wraps than they are to make any call to Uber Eats. And the flushing sound you hear may just be $6 million in talent fees for our “friends” and the $7 million in media costs.

The other inherent danger in borrowed interest is when that star you’ve paid so much for says or does something that is decidedly off-brand. The cases are well-documented. Back in the early 2000s, Sharon Stone was the face of Dior Cosmetics. That is, until she decided to mix their makeup with her own personal geopolitics. In a no-filter interview in 2008, Stone suggested that the mega earthquake that just hit China’s Sichuan province, killing almost 70,000 people, was karmic retribution for China’s long-term mistreatment of the Tibetan people. Dior took note and dropped Ms. Stone like a hot rock. (Is that redundant—“stone,” “rock”?)

Star athletes can be problematic as well. Remember Michael Phelps, star swimmer and eight-time gold medal winner in the 2008 Olympics? On the heels of that success, he quickly became ambassador for mega-brands Subway, Kelloggs, and AT&T. Everything was going swimmingly (sorry) until an enterprising paparazzi caught Phelps smoking a joint in public. The photo was printed in News of The World, the spotless British tabloid. After making history, Mr. Phelps was history as sponsors couldn’t get out of the pool fast enough. Among other things, this case shows you what a difference sixteen years can make. Today, with marijuana legal in twenty-four U.S. states, would anyone even care what Michael was smoking? 

What’s my point? Because there’s always a point. If you are hell bent on using a celebrity to pitch your brand or service, take stock of two things. Number one: Is that star likely to do something off-screen that might embarrass you? There are precious few Boy or Girl Scouts any more. (Although every time I see Taylor Swift, I picture her twenty years ago wearing a sash full of merit badges and selling Thin Mints.) Know that their reputation will quickly become your reputation if they go off the rails. Number two: Make sure that your ad concept is bigger than the star. Stardom not withstanding, we must all be in service to the brand. In that light, Beyoncé’s Super Bowl spot could, in the stadium of borrowed interest, be the best of both worlds. Of all things, she is advertising herself. 

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