Why Does Celebrity Advertising Work?

Actor/comedian Jim Gaffigan is starring in new commercials supporting Walmart’s Straight Talk Wireless family plans, actress Emma Roberts fronted Saks’ spring campaign, and hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg recently signed on as the face of Petco’s pet care campaign.

Kanye West’s fallout from both Adidas and Gap last fall after the rapper spouted antisemitic remarks demonstrates how celebrity endorsements can backfire.

Celebrity marketing also generally doesn’t fare well in consumer surveys.

A survey of U.S. consumers from advocacy marketing company ExpertVoice, for instance, found only 4% trust celebrity endorsements, while 83% trust recommendations from friends and family. According to 57% of respondents, the greatest concern for consumers regarding celebrity recommendations is the monetary compensation they receive from the brand they’re promoting.

Nonetheless, retailers continue to use celebrities, particularly to draw attention to holiday campaigns. Last holiday, celebrity partnerships included Selma Blair with Gap, Jennifer Coolidge with Old Navy, Christina Ricci and Leslie Odom Jr. with Nordstrom, and Chloë Sevigny with H&M.

A celebrity endorsement increases a company’s sales by an average of 4% relative to its competition, according to research led by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.

Elberse, in a column for CNN, stated that celebrities enable brands to tap into the star’s fan base while reassuring consumers of the quality of the endorsed brand. She wrote, “Consumers often cannot easily assess the true quality of products, at least not before they consume them. But seeing a celebrity attaching his or her name and good reputation to a product may help alleviate some of their uncertainty.”

In a column for USA Today, Jeff Stibel, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur, said the reason celebrity endorsements work is that minds are challenged when “differentiating between real and make-believe,” so celebrities become familiar. He wrote, “When a familiar face promotes a product, it makes it seem as if the product itself is familiar, which makes people more likely to buy it. Even though we’ve never met them, the brain regards familiar celebrities the same way it does people who are actually familiar and trustworthy to us in real life.”