In a recent study we asked 16- to 18-year-olds about the celebrities they most like and dislike. The two mentioned most frequently were Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (formerly Cole) and Katie Price.
Our results concur with Price’s proclamation that she is the "Marmite" of celebrity. The two celebrities provoked mixed responses – both loved and loathed by our teens.
Fernandez-Versini and Price are declared ‘celebrity chavs’ but they wear this identity myth in different ways.
Fernandez-Versini presents herself as ‘normal girl done good’ while Price sells herself as ‘hard-working successful businesswoman/caring mother/loving wife’.
‘Chav’ is a controversial term, used to deride the appearance, accent, lifestyle and culture of the white working class.
‘Celebrity chavs’ are often viewed as queens and kings of bad taste – gauche, vulgar and sometimes tragi-comic.
Our data showed that young people draw on stories and identities circulated both by the celebrities themselves (for example in interviews and autobiographies) and by the media when explaining why they like or dislike Fernandez-Versini and Price.
In other words, celebrity identity myths are co-constructed by the media and the celebrity.
So, what does this mean to celebrity brand managers and marketers, particularly those associated with the ‘chav myth’ and faced with the circulation of negative stories and identities in the media and by consumers?
Class-infused celebrity identity myths (the 'celebrity chav') are constructed from a mix of perceptions of glamour, allure and charisma alongside vulgarity, repulsion and ordinariness.
Rather than trying to drastically alter a celebrity brand’s positioning and risk being viewed as inauthentic/fake, our findings suggest that celebrities can successfully claim negative meanings, stories and identities and rework them to lend positive and authentic meanings, as Fernandez-Versini and Price do in their autobiographies, through interviews, social media etc.
It’s the celebrity equivalent of the revival of Skoda in which the car brand inverted popular myths that its cars were the byword for ‘cheap and nasty’ into a popular brand based on the values of ‘lack of pretension’ and ‘value for money’.
A blend of positive (glamour, charisma) and negative (ordinariness, vulgarity) constructions is part of what makes some celebrity brands, particularly working-class celebrities, so compelling and exciting.
Perhaps another key point is that rather than passively accepting the myths and identities co-constructed by the media and celebrity, consumers adopt a more active and critical stance, drawing only on selected aspects of the myths in order to justify their position in relation to a celebrity brand (e.g. for or against) and to support their own identity work.
Exciting brands seem to cope better than sincere brands in the face of transgressions – suggesting that negative meanings, stories and identities should not be altogether rejected or eliminated by celebrity PR teams.
Dr Hayley Cocker is a lecturer in marketing at Lancaster University Management School