I posted the question on my Facebook page: What are your most and least favorite celebrity car endorsements? I got about 30 comments in the course of one day. Here are a few (check out the videos at the bottom of the post):
- "Oldsmobile ads with Leonard Nimoy."
- "Really disliked Howie Long in recent Chevy spots."
- "Mike Rowe is a great fit with Ford."
- "Tiger Woods and Buick was a train wreck."
- "Did everyone forget about Joe Isuzu?"
- "Why not go all the way back to Dinah Shore?"
- "Ricardo Montalban for Chrysler's 'Corinthian leather.'"
- "Kate Walsh for Cadillac, sexy and alluring, like the car."
While celebrity endorsements can often be memorable, my essential question as a marketer is whether it makes a difference to what really counts, which is selling more vehicles? I think there are four important aspects to consider:
1. Does the celebrity espouse the brand's ideals? When a microphone is shoved in the face of the celebrity, can the audience see and hear, and most importantly, believe that the celebrity is a true fan of the product?
2. Does the vehicle really need a celebrity spokesperson? Is the vehicle in question one that is not selling or will sell better because the celebrity can help upgrade its image?
3. Will the partnership be one of equals, where each gets something (besides a check) out of the paring? Or will the celebrity just outshine the car?
4. Last but not least, can you measure the difference in sales or revenue? Too many deals are done because some auto executive is enamored with the celebrity, and that relationship can get in the way of actually maximizing -- or terminating -- the deal.
I can speak from experience on this issue and not because I always got it right, trust me. I was at DaimlerChrysler when we signed Celine Dion for Chrysler. No, it was not my idea (at the time I was actually on the Dodge brand) and I did not like it for many of the reasons I listed above. She clearly outshone our vehicles and even my friend and manager at the time, Jim Schroer, has admitted to me that in hindsight, she was a mistake.
I was, however, responsible for getting Aerosmith when we launched the Grab Life by the Horns campaign for Dodge in 2001. This was an effort to change the perception of the brand from what I believed was a sleepy and cerebral positioning with Edward Hermann as spokesman. I think Aerosmith worked on many levels, but one of the keys to its success was that we didn't use the band members in ads, just the music. We did this to keep from repeating the Celine Dion mistake. (We did utilize the band for concert promotions, licensed products, and some other marketing.) While you would never have believed that Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were driving around in Durangos, it was entirely believable that they drove Vipers -- and they did, as the band required them as part of the contract.
Then there was the ad that we ran in 2005 with Snoop Dogg and Lee Iacocca. That still brings a smile to my face. At the time, I was running marketing for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. To this day, carmakers hold sales events in the summer to clear out end-of-model-year inventory. Many of these take the same old form of showrooms full of people and balloons, proving just how challenging it can be to come up with new ideas year after year.
We wanted to do something completely different, and the idea surfaced to feature Lee Iacocca, who is arguably the most famous pitchman Chrysler ever had. But the big twist was to pair him with the iconic hip hop mogul who just happened to be an ardent fan of the Chrysler 300. The result was certainly anything but ordinary and it did actually work, calling huge attention to our sale event if for no other reason than we got a lot of press for the audaciousness of the ad. This probably created as much awareness as did the actual TV spots did.
At the end of the day, however, I still had to ask myself if we sold more vehicles. In the case of Dodge, the answer was yes. Looking at the larger picture, was the ad effective for the entirety of Chrysler? Maybe. But truth be told, without a solid product behind you, no amount of celebrity will sell even one more vehicle. As the old chestnut says, you can put lipstick on a pig but when it wears off, you are still looking at a pig.
Oldsmobile: Leonard Nimoy
Chevrolet: Howie Long
Ford: Mike Rowe
Buick: Tiger Woods
Isuzu: Joe Isuzu
Chevrolet: Dinah Shore
Chrysler: Ricardo Montalban
Cadillac: Kate Walsh