The pitfalls of sprinkling celebrity stardust on brands

Children's charity Barnardo's came under fire this week after The Sun accused the charity of paying reality TV star 'Binky' Felstead £20,000 for promoting the charity on Instagram. PRWeek commissioned research to gauge the impact of the incident on the charity and asked celebrity endorsement specialists to give their view on the use of high-profile people to promote brands

"Binky" Felstead: promoted Barnardo's on Instagram after being paid a £3,000 fee
"Binky" Felstead: promoted Barnardo's on Instagram after being paid a £3,000 fee

In an official statement, the charity denied it had paid £20,000 but admitted that it paid a fee of £3,000 to the Made in Chelsea star, whose real name is Alexandra.

This is the first time Barnardo’s has paid a celebrity for an endorsement campaign. It defended the move on the grounds that Barnardo’s retail shops are part of its trading arm and therefore operate in a commercial way.

The statement continued: "We have had to postpone some previous retail campaigns as we have been unable to secure the right celebrity backing. This was a way of testing the impact of a popular celebrity in order to appeal to a new, wider audience."

Felstead was widely criticised on Twitter and has since said she will waive her £3,000 fee.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, ChildLine founder Dame Esther Rantzen said the incident had "tainted" the charity and that "Barnado’s ought to think again".

PRWeek commissioned Brandwatch to conduct analysis of how Twitter users had reacted to the incident.

The findings show that after The Sun's front page, online mentions of Binky and Barnardo's rose to a total of 2,251 on Monday. Of these categorised by sentiment, 85 per cent were negative and 15 per cent were positive. Over 10 per cent of all mentions referred to the incident as a "disgrace".

The analysis suggests that what consumers objected to was a lack of transparency, as Felstead was asking her followers to donate, having failed to be upfront about being paid for her involvement.

Celebrities have been plugging products in adverts and billboard campaigns for decades, but this type of social media celebrity endorsement is emerging as a grey area.

Credibility issues

Barnardo’s was criticised from an ethical point of view, as a charity spending money on celebrity endorsement. But there are wider issues that apply to both charities and brands using celebrities in this way.

David Wiles, director at Shine Communications, says one of the major issues is credibility. Shine was recently brought in for Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust’s Smear for Smear selfie campaign to help the in-house team gain support from high profile 'influencers'.

The campaign had support on social media from celebrities including Stephen Fry, Gaby Roslin, and Cara Delevigne, but Wiles confirms the celebrities were not paid for their involvement. Wiles says: "By doing something for free, it felt more genuine. We don’t want to be writing tweets for someone to send out on our behalf because it’s not credible or believable."

Wiles says Barnardo’s was in a "tricky" situation because there is an expectation that celebrities will donate their time for charities. But he adds that while some may criticise a charity paying for celebrity endorsement, these organisations are still competing with other brands.

When it comes to celebrity endorsements for brands, Wiles says that if the agency was working with a particular celebrity, it would draw up a contract with "a minimum number of interactions" but adds that it would have to be someone who had a personal interest in the brand.

'Lazy PR'

For Jim Dowling, MD at Cake PR, the most important thing is coming up with the idea first, rather than leading with the celebrity. He says problems arise when PRs use celebrity endorsement for the sake of it. Dowling says this approach is "lazy PR" and will "get spotted by the audience".

All the experts agree that celebrity endorsements need to feel relevant and should only be used as one element of a wider campaign. Otherwise, says John Doe MD Rosie Holden, it "smacks of celebrity badging". Holden says: "It’s so obvious when celebrities do it and their audiences tend to backlash, so that’s something to watch out for."

It’s a dangerous mistake to think that the general consumer is stupid

Jim Dowling, MD at Cake PR



As the Barnardo’s incident demonstrates, transparency is a major issue. As well as the fact that consumers are often wise to PR plugs, celebrities failing to disclose paid endorsements are technically breaking The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules. They stae that sponsored tweets, Instagram posts or blogs should be easily recognisable using the hashtag #ad.

But Marcus Beard, impact marketer at Brandwatch, says the ASA guidelines are "hard to enforce and largely optional with regards to social media". He says: "Celebrities endorsing products via social is not a new thing and most social media users are aware these deals go on, but the nature of it is changing."

Dowling is not convinced that flagging up promotional tweets from celebrities is necessary: "It’s a dangerous mistake to think that the general consumer is stupid. Everybody recognises that brands exist to sell products. People can work out when people are being paid to say something."

The payback

Celebrity endorsements raise issues of transparency, credibility and relevance, but are they actually beneficial to brands?

A celebrity may have an impressive reach on social media, but if consumers are not interested in what they have got to say, then it is not hugely useful to the client.

This is why vloggers and social media stars are becoming as important as celebrities, if not more so, when it comes to social media endorsements. Wiles says: "The balance is increasingly shifting to people who’ve got that reach on Twitter or YouTube because we can measure the traffic we’re driving to the client’s site through click-throughs."

However, a recent study by GlobalWebIndex found that even vloggers are not necessarily as effective at plugging products as people think. The survey found that while 50 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds had watched a vlog in the last month, only 12 per cent of viewers said they found out about new brands and products from vloggers.

Whether it is from vloggers or celebrities, PR agencies should approach social media endorsements with caution. Using celebrities for the sake of celebrity is unlikely to add any value to a campaign, and may even turn consumers off the brand if they think it feels forced.

As Dowling observes: "There has always been a relationship with the PR industry and celebrities and brands, long before social media and it will continue. We need to be smart and sensible as to how we treat the audience."

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