MARKET FOCUS: Celebrities: Hollywood hawkers

While PR helps sell products to the public, Anita Chabria learns that it plays an even bigger role in getting stars to buy into the value of pitching them.

While PR helps sell products to the public, Anita Chabria learns that it plays an even bigger role in getting stars to buy into the value of pitching them.

It is a Thursday evening in Hollywood, and the red carpet is rolled out for a high-profile premiere at the newly opened Arclight Cinemas. Arriving fashionably late for their jaunt down the gauntlet of television and print reporters are a bevy of celebrity faces. Director John Woo, conservatively clad in a suit and tie, is sharing the spotlight with rocker Marilyn Manson. Also in attendance are directors Joe Carnahan and Ridley Scott, the "godfather of soul" James Brown, Tia Carrera, Owen Wilson, and a dozen other luminaries. Each stops in front of a branded backdrop to answer press questions, and often to thank the night's sponsors. But it's not a Hollywood studio that is reaping the stars' accolades. This is the launch party for The Hire, the second installment in BMW's short-film series, which is distributed on the internet, and it's the German auto manufacturer that is garnering the publicized praise. Co-hosted by Vanity Fair, the screening and after-party of the three short movies is already paying off with more than a dozen prominent media placements - and that's before the films even hit the web. While The Hire is purely an advertising vehicle (created by Fallon Worldwide), the Hollywood connections have made it a media story in its own right. As BMW well knows, that's the PR value of a celebrity-driven campaign. Reaching the stars While celebrities have a long history of shilling for business, there are lots of unspoken rules about who will do what and why. Focusing advertising efforts on a high-wattage campaign can pay off both in media attention and the association of the brand with a popular icon. But when it comes to appearing on the small screen, many top celebrities cringe at the thought of just that association. Tying a beer brand with a celebrity like Tom Hanks or Pierce Brosnan may make for more suds sales, but it's often an image A-list talents are eager to avoid. Cracks are appearing in that code, however, especially for certain industries such as pharmaceuticals. But with stars and their handlers intent on protecting their own brands, corporations have to do some PR before they even get started with advertising. That PR is aimed at Hollywood, to convince the power players that the products they are asked to represent are cool in their own right, and could actually enhance a celebrity's image or at least pay off with positive exposure. It's a subtle seduction that isn't moving quickly, but some companies seem to understand that image is everything when it comes to catching a star. "Sometimes it's a creative sales job they do," says Steve Levitt, president of New York-based Marketing Evaluations/TVQ, which researches and rates stars' bankability for corporate and agency clients. "It's a matter of the advertising community positioning the role of the celebrity so that it helps to extend the star's visibility, or increase their penetration," while guarding their all-important image. BMW is a very successful example of that image-savvy approach. The multimillion dollar advertising effort positioned itself with a hip, pop-culture sensibility, and lacks any taint of "selling out" by virtue of the artistic freedom it offers to participants. That has made it a desirable product for celebrities to associate themselves with. It seems cool, feels closer to a film festival than a commercial, and pays off with positive press and a hefty paycheck. In all, it has good PR. Aside from BMW's innovative approach, traditional celebrity advertising is alive and well - if not quite so successful at crossing over into PR. Lesser-known film and TV stars have always embraced advertising, but big names who would draw the most media attention remain harder to convince. "Certainly there are plenty of A-list or A-minus people who will do modeling stuff," says Henry Eshelman, managing director of Baker Winokur Ryder, in explaining Hollywood's perception of product hierarchy. But, he adds, items like peanut butter or power tools aren't going to get the star treatment. "They think it detracts from their image," he says. So while Seinfeld's Jason Alexander promotes Kentucky Fried Chicken, Catherine Zeta Jones represents T-Mobile, and Donald Trump sells for McDonald's, stars like Julia Roberts stay off the airwaves. But despite the ban on US airtime, A-list luminaries are happy to hawk wares overseas, (Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor are two examples, having sold coffee and an English language school, respectively, on Japanese TV). "There clearly is a subset of the American celebrity community that will do things overseas that they won't do in the US," says LA-based Celebrity Connections president Barry Greenberg, who helps match stars with corporate clients. "There is the feeling on the part of some celebrities - and more likely some celebrity representatives - that the celebrities' livelihoods are created in this country and in some way doing a Budweiser ad is going to cheapen the celebrity, affect his or her profile, and make them less desirable as movie and television stars." Getting ahead in Hollywood Those "celebrity representatives" are often more important for corporations to reach than the celebs themselves. Stars are surrounded with advisors who have a monetary stake in protecting the celebrity's career. Each of those people represent an access point to the star, and each has developed a protocol for being approached and for evaluating deals before they reach the stars themselves. Explaining and arranging the proper meetings has developed into its own PR niche in Tinseltown. "If you're planning to work in this community for more than five minutes, you want to respect their hierarchies and deal through the celebrity's representation," explains Greenberg. "You need to honor the precepts that are set down for the ways you should be approaching celebrities. There is a protocol and you have to honor it." That reality has helped fuel corporate America's rush to find Hollywood insiders who understand which fork to use for such delicate negotiations. PR agencies are striving to fill that role, with more and more creating entertainment marketing divisions or other specialty practices to formalize their position as Hollywood etiquette experts. But it's a hotly contested territory, and other industries are vying for the same clients. Talent agencies and ad agencies are also seeking to help corporations find innovative ways to tap into Hollywood's selling power. William Morris Agency, for example, helps clients such as General Motors. Pharmaceuticals may be the industry most intent on building a closer relationship with Hollywood. Celebrity endorsements of drugs have increased exponentially over the past few years. Bob Dole has advertised for Pfizer's Viagra, Joan Lunden hawked Claritin, and Kathleen Turner speaks on behalf of a rheumatoid arthritis medication from Wyeth - just to name a few. While pharmaceutical advertising may not appeal to a celebrity's hip side, it does offer stars the benefit of speaking out with a personal story that can add a sympathetic edge to an image, as well as raise their own profiles. And since drug companies create products that are often difficult to explain to consumers, having a high-profile star that can get media coverage is a sales vehicle worth its big price tag. "These products are getting more and more difficult to discuss, but there isn't a crevice in your body that's left to be spoken about," said Greenberg, who often helps drug companies find celebrities that suffer from particular ailments. But having a celebrity-centered campaign doesn't guarantee positive PR. Some companies are learning the hard way that they need to screen their prospective stars as closely as the stars screen them. Earlier this year, Pepsi backed away from hip-hop artist Ludacris after Bill O'Reilly of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor charged that the musician degraded women and promoted intoxication through his song lyrics. The cola-maker quickly dropped the controversial songster from national commercials, but not before the story helped Pepsi turn their advertising campaign into a PR story of its own - just not with the angle it wanted. -------------------------- Dude, you've gotten famous Enlisting a celebrity to help an advertising campaign develop into positive PR may be a savvy move, but creating your own star is even better. Dell Computers pushed acting-school student Ben Curtis into the stratosphere when it introduced him as slacker salesman "Steven" in a recent ad campaign. "The idea was to help Dell be more approachable, and Steven is an approachable guy," explains VP of corporate communications Elizabeth Allen. Approachable and interesting. Curtis quickly sparked consumer and media attention, and began to seep into popular culture. But Dell wanted to know just how stellar of a star "Steven" could be. "About this time last year, we decided we would spend up to $100,000 - and no more - in trying to see if we could generate some buzz around this guy," recalls Allen. That PR push lead to numerous media hits, including a five-minute skit about "Steven" on Saturday Night Live, and an article in People. In all, Allen estimates the advertising equivalency of Dell's hundred-grand investment has been more than $10 million. The experience has made her a fan of untapped talents. "If I had to pick, I would pick an unknown that you could really build something with," she says. "Steven is not associated with any other products, movies, or anything like that. He's solely associated with Dell."

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