At this year's Oscars, the gift bag bestowed to presenters, performers and select VIPs was estimated to be worth $110,000.
Among the many and varied items, the lucky recipients left with a 43-inch HDTV from Samsung Electronics and 12 months of the Voom high-definition television service, worth more than $6,000. This placement in the gift bag landed the companies a mention in USA Today, where TV personality Melissa Rivers says it was the best of the award-show freebies.
The campaign, spearheaded by PR firm Rogers & Cowan, was just one of many celebrity seeding efforts that provide the rich and influential with products in the hopes that a star's approval translates into demand from stargazing consumers. Despite our dreamy ideals, the Oscars, Emmys and their ilk are just a few days in the world of celebrity seeding. Every week brings another opportunity for celebrities to open their mail to find the next camcorder or purse to tote as a willing but unspoken brand ambassador.
The so-called TiVo-ization of the world and the targeted youth market purportedly turned off by traditional Madison Avenue commercials, coupled with a stodgily down economy, makes celebrity seeding a much more attractive measure than traditionally high-cost print and broadcast advertisements. "By bartering products for their services, we could involve numerous influencers for much less than it would cost [to hire a] spokesperson," says Jonathan Holiff, president of Hollywood-Madison, a provider of celebrities for endorsements, appearances and press campaigns.
Product placement, the art of paying studios or production companies to work products in the camera's point-of-view or storyline, often looks obvious and, therefore, can be as unctuous as advertisements. Traditional product placement debuted when companies sponsored radio and television shows in the earlier half of the 20th century and, some would say, had reached a peak by the time Mike Myers' spoofed the practice in 1992's Wayne's World.
Additional, consumers idolize celebrities, not the characters they are compensated to play. Since we would like to think that celebrities are affluent enough to afford their own clothing and products, it looks less like a paid-for endorsement and more like a product choice made on individual preference.
"Because swag has become so prevalent Hollywood, celebrities are more in-tuned with the concept," Holiff says.
"Some fans may know what's going on," says Marisa Brickman, director of event marketing and PR for Cornerstone Promotion & The Fader magazine. "When a celebrity goes to the Oscars, there's a gown made for her."
This is not to say that celebrities are comfortable brandishing any and every product.
"They have their own images that they finely manufacturer," says Morris Reid, managing director of corporate communications firm Westin Rinehart and managing partner of youth marketing consultancy Blue Fusion. "They don't want to lose credibility with their own brand."
The fact is that that celebrities do have their own brand. While we don't expect them to act on a level of probity of say, Kofi Annan, their credibility does not allow them to be hyperactive shills for anything under the sun. Thus, the delicate process of celebrity seeding is one of the most difficult campaigns to undertake for PR professionals. Whereas celebrity spokespersons are compensated well for their time and undoubtedly have a lengthy contract to dictate responsibilities, there are plenty of gray areas and approaches in engaging a celebrity for product seeding.
"When done right, influential seeding is about reaching trend setters and influencers who impact what a consumer wears to what music he or she listens to what video games he or she plays," says Rogers & Cowan CEO Tom Tardio.
While celebrities may often gush about getting free dresses or suits for award shows, they're very unlikely to disclose that some of their daily products are provided gratis. "A signed contract guarantees the use of their campaigns, likeness and images," Holiff says, adding that Hollywood-Madison informs celebrities that their likeness will not be used for paid advertising.
There are three different approaches, according to Tardio: broad, narrow, and one-on-one relationship building. In one-on-one relationship building, firms match the product with the right celebrity. This requires in-depth knowledge of the celebrities and may include meet-and-greet between the client and the celebrity, depending on the product. With the narrow approach, clients will attempt to reach a smaller group of influencers that have something in common.
Examples include the Voom campaign or sending of laptops to members of the Screenwriters Guild of America. In the broad approach, a large group of individuals that may not have much in common are targeted and are typically not approached with a follow-up query. This approach is not particularly PR-oriented, Tardio says. Jonathan Holiff doesn't particularly like the gift bag approach because of the likelihood that the celebrity won't receive and, subsequently, won't be able to influence with the client's product. He adds: "If a PR agency doesn't have the immediate contact with the celebrities, they're essentially throwing out [items] to Hollywood. They go to agents, managers, or reps instead of the influencers."
It is obvious that agents and managers are not the stars that the public lines up to see and the brands seen on their person lack the same importance. Corporations understand this and put barriers in place. In that same USA Today article, TV personality Joan Rivers bemoaned the fact that tickets for a seven-day cruise were non-transferable, and she speculated that Tom Cruise would not be taking that trip. In the more narrowly focused campaigns, there is the potential that celebrities might receive a small remuneration for their participation.
"Celebrity seeding consists of a free product and, sometimes, a small honorarium. If the campaign isn't attractive enough or [have an] altruistic element, the price goes up," Holiff says. He adds: "It's really important that people understand that unlike having Andre Agassi wear Nike products on the court, celebrity seeding and the fees involved are very modest, a couple of thousand dollars at most." Holiff says that when money is involved, it's mostly to ensure the celebrity's participation.
"A contract is more secure when money is involved," Holiff says. Tardio, however, did not think that celebrity-seeding programs should involve any money. "This is not a celebrity endorsement with a contract; that's more related to the advertising industry," Tardio says. "Proper celebrity seeding programs should not include a monetary transaction." "A-level celebrities are not looking to this for financial remuneration. They probably just enjoy the relationship," Tardio says.
Due to the different definitions and protocol for celebrity seeding campaigns, the scope and results can vary dramatically. One of Hollywood-Madison's recent campaigns involved a cause-marketing effort that placed Sony CD Mavica cameras in the hands of actors Dennis Hopper, a published photographer, and the actors Alyssa Milano and Eric McCormack, who were asked to take a picture of what freedom meant to them. The photographs were subsequently sold on eBay via a Wired's charity auction, of which the proceeds went to Steven Spielberg's children's charity, The Starbright Foundation. As a result, Sony got free advertising for its product in print and online for three months, which the was worth an estimated $100,000, as well as 3.6 million page impressions and coverage on Entertainment Tonight.
"The charity component allowed us to attract bigger stars," Holiff says, adding that the celebrities didn't receive payment for their participation.
Cornerstone Promotion, which also publishes independent culture-focused The Fader magazine, does a lot of promotional work with music acts. The company helped distribute a customized vinyl series comprising of old, unreleased hip-hop tracks in a DJ bag coinciding with Sprite releasing its new variation of the Sprite Remix soda. The effort isn't meant to be seen as a corporation launching a brand on a particular demographic or an attempt to make people drink soda, but rather a goodwill effort that garnered the brand a lot of respect amongst hip-hop aficionados, a community that the soft-drink purveyor cherishes, Brickman says.
Cornerstone also works with youth-targeted brands like Converse, Adidas, and Levi's. At last years' CMJ and SXSW music festivals, the firm provided a lounge area where bands relaxed and were provided free products from the corporate sponsors. Brickman points out that it's often a symbiotic relationship.
"Independent bands need help to publicize their shows," she says, adding that a company that wants to tap into that marketplace can provide sponsorship and free products without any strings attached.
Celebrity seeding can also be a less risky form of getting associated with a celebrity. There is no more perfect example of the pitfalls of dealing with celebrity - or, indeed, any human - than the sullying of Kobe Bryant's and Mary-Kate Olsen's names. McDonald's can't drop Kobe without telling the world of its decision.
The Got Milk campaign can't just sneak out the back door while Olsen seeks treatment. A celebrity seeding campaign, which is very rarely publicized, does not have to encounter the situation that Slim-Fast recently did, when it informed the world that Whoopi Goldberg's reportedly questionable euphemisms and prop work did not mesh well with its brand mission.
"Coming out with a statement addressing the travails of a celebrity [you've seeded a product with] is unnecessary. You just simply delete them from the effort, which is on-going and can be revised as necessary," Holiff says.
"We knew that, as the Olsen twins became women, they would start to take on issues that are not PG friendly," Reid says. "You have those out-clauses and you have to be prepared for the downside risk."
As for celebrities who take a brand stewardship into their own hands, such as in the mainstream hip-hop world, there isn't much recourse for companies that find the association unfavorable.
"There's very little they can do because of the freedom of speech," Reid says. However, it can prompt an unsuspected boon for a company.
When gravel-voiced rapper Busta Rymes intoned the cognac brand Courvoisier in one of his songs a couple years ago, it became a rallying call in the nation's conscious that summer. Despite celebrity pitfalls and unsolicited endorsements, the celebrity seeding machine rolls on. If consumers continue to embrace products that help filter out traditional commercials (likely) and maintain their hero worship of celebrities (invariably), companies will look more towards using celebrities as their muted billboards. Unless you, the average consumer, carry a $200 million movie or otherwise prove your ability to lead a trend based solely on what you wear or drink, those gratis gift bags won't be coming your way anytime soon.