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Friday 1 March 2019

I see what you did there

  • The Rhodri Giggs ad for Paddy Power wryly plays on consumers’ knowledge of tabloid celebrity culture
  • Celebrity endorsement is as old as advertising
  • But it’s evolved from straightforward seal of approval to brands’ ironic manipulation of celebrity backstories

By Liz Moseley

Rhodri Giggs, brother of the footballing mega-star Ryan, has appeared in a series of advertisements for betting giant Paddy Power that feature the tagline “Loyalty gets you nowhere. Live for rewards instead.” The brothers have not spoken since 2011, when details of Ryan’s eight-year affair with Rhodri’s then wife Natasha were revealed in the tabloid press. The ad works precisely because the audience can spot all of the references – and reveals just how far the celebrity endorsement has travelled.

Celebrity endorsement is not a new phenomenon

Imagine this. It’s 1899 and you want to buy a fountain pen. How do you choose? A personal recommendation from Mark Twain would help, surely, to at least narrow down the options. Mark Twain’s name, with legitimate testimonials, appeared on advertisements for a variety of brands of fountain pen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was not only perhaps the greatest American writer of his day, but a pioneer of celebrity endorsement.

Mark Twain’s fountain pen endorsement

Mutual back scratching

Celebrity endorsement, even relative to other forms of marketing, has something of a dubious reputation – at best creatively compromising, at worst mildly exploitative. It can look equally bad whether it starts with the brand deliberately and cynically setting out to do an equity buyout of someone else’s talent in order to shift product, or if it’s a second-tier, fading celebrity selling out the goodwill of his or her trusting fans by recommending a rubbish product for cash.

But since Mark Twain’s pens, by the 1950s – before mass media was properly developed – endorsement had already become a legitimate way for major celebrities to reach new markets. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor were once famously paid in chocolate in a deal in which they got to plug their latest films in ads for the American confectionary brand Whitman’s.

Elizabeth Taylor sells chocolate as well as her latest film in 1952

Megastars, megabrands, megadeals

The 1980s became known in the advertising industry as “the decade of the deal”. The so-called “cola wars” were raging, and, by 1990, most of the world’s top 100 advertisers were under new ownership. Competition was fierce, subtlety was rare and, unsurprisingly, the advertising industry was enjoying itself. Michael Jordan’s 1984 deal with Nike to create the iconic Air Jordan shoe was originally “only” worth $2.5m – but 34 years later still nets him nearly $100m a year in royalties from shoe sales. Pepsi’s New Generation campaign, starring Michael Jackson, was another game changer. In two separate deals worth more than $20m, the Jackson and Pepsi brands became indistinguishable from one another. His endorsement of the drink was transparent, unapologetic and entirely without irony. The marketing goal was simple – take the biggest popstar in the world and use him to make Coke seem old. And audiences/consumers bought it.

Beyoncé appears for Pepsi in 2005

Genre blending

As far back as the 1960s, though, a format known as “integrated advertisements” had already become popular with marketers. A brand sponsor of a TV show was able to make and air specific ad spots to air in the commercial break starring actors from the show, often in character. Imagine watching Coronation Street, (which is currently sponsored by Compare the Market) and seeing William Roache in character as Ken Barlow talking to a meerkat with a Russian accent about how pleased he was with his home insurance quote.

Today, new media formats – most recently and notoriously the genre known as “vlogging” – have triggered regulation that requires advertising and editorial to be clearly labelled and delineated, to avoid hoodwinking viewers. The Jennifer Aniston advertisements for L’Oreal (“Here comes the science bit, concentrate!”) would face restrictions over appearing in the commercial breaks of Friends, for example. Although strictly speaking Aniston plays herself in the ads, the genius of the casting in this endorsement deal made the most of the blurred boundary between the Aniston brand and her onscreen character’s famous haircut.

Getty Images

Jennifer Aniston on the set of Friends

Meta endorsement

The Woody Allen Smirnoff ads from 1966 are a striking early example of a much more 21st-century style of “meta” endorsement. Smirnoff’s market position – in a sweet spot that combines mainstream accessibility with a smidgen of subversive, countercultural appeal – was a great fit with Allen’s 1960s persona. So far, so standard. But when Allen built a grudging defence of his decision to do the ad into his stand-up routine– justifying taking the money – he turned the deal into a meta endorsement.

Woody Allen in a 1960s vodka campaign

Faux personae, humour and the rise of badvertising

Now that audiences, brands and celebrities are all well aware of who is getting what out of these deals, the flavour of the ads often tends toward the comic. Humour is a watertight way to justify the endorsement, insulate the celebrity’s reputation, engender goodwill toward the brand and – pertinently, in the case of Rhodri Giggs for Paddy Power – swerve what (loose) regulation exists.

Gary Lineker as a faux bad guy for Walkers crisps

The endorsement by the daytime TV star Phillip Schofield, We Buy Any Car, tagline “Be More Schofield”, builds on a ludicrous exaggeration of his longstanding nice-guy persona. Gary Lineker’s relationship with Walkers crisps, which began in 1994 and is worth over £1m a year to him (and presumably more to Walkers), has enabled him to occupy a faux bad-guy-nincompoop persona, that is only funny (if it’s funny at all) because we all know that “real life Gary” is neither bad nor a nincompoop.

Perhaps less successful is the endorsement of Müller by Nicole Scherzinger, formerly of the Pussycat Dolls and Lewis Hamilton’s ex-girlfriend. In a series of ads for luxury yoghurt, the impossibly glamorous and unattainably beautiful Scherzinger adopts a bizarre, faux-clumsy onscreen persona as – and I’m guessing here – shorthand for her underlying ordinariness, to convince us that, indeed, we’re all just like her if we would only eat the yoghurt.

Phillip Schofield in the We Buy Any Car campaign

The operative word is “faux” because that’s where the Rhodri Giggs ad marks a real departure. It is fascinating because it draws on genre-blending, meta endorsement, persona exaggeration and self-deprecation to create a piece of film (obviously it “went viral”) that couldn’t have existed without all that had gone before it. It is, perhaps, the definitive endorsement ad for our times.

To understand its message (and to relish all the puns) we need to know the backstory of Ryan Giggs’s affair with his brother’s wife, of course, but we also need to identify and decode the sociocultural language of the tabloid press, of sports media and of pseudo-reality television. There’s a delicious theatrical irony in the fact that the brothers look and sound alike, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch. In this ad, we bear witness to Rhodri Giggs taking back control of his personal narrative. He recasts himself in a position of power. Unlike the Müller/Scherzinger attempt at faux-ordinariness, for all the shameless bravado there is an impressive authenticity in the Paddy Power campaign that will appeal to existing and potential customers. The urge to strike back at someone who once humiliated you is surely relatable, and the appeal of seeing an underdog come out fighting and win is undeniable. The question is, does it makes you want to go place a bet – or swear off modern life altogether?


Further reading

Sporting endorsement turkeys The key to a successful endorsement is getting the combination of product and celebrity right. But you do not have to look very far to find examples of ill-advised celebrity/brand partnerships. Some choice examples from the sporting world include this absolute gem featuring Mohammed Ali as the face of D-Con roach traps from 1978, and this baffling Japanese ad for a Pao Facial Fitness device starring a deliciously awkward Cristiano Ronaldo.

New rules about endorsements The Advertising Standards Authority set out new rules for social influencers – is it an ad, have you been sponsored, or do you just really like avocado toast?