Last night's Grammy Awards marked Justin Timberlake's commercial debut as "creative director and musical curator" for Bud Light Platinum. His main contribution was using part of the brand's multimillion-dollar budget to plug the first single from his new album.
He was only the latest in a string of celebrities who aren't advertising experts but play them on television.
Before he became so last year, Jay-Z was "creative director and musical curator" for the beer.
Marc Jacobs is "creative director" for Diet Coke. So is Taylor Swift.
Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham and Will.i.am are also appearing in commercials for – and supposedly bringing strategic and creative direction to – BlackBerry, Pepsi, Polaroid, HP, Land Rover and Intel, respectively.
"The model for these tie-ups," Advertising Age reports,
is a "partnership" anointing A-listers with lofty titles like chief creative officer, head of creative designs, chief innovator and brand ambassador. The link-ups are so fast and furious it's hard for the Average Joe to keep track.
In fact or just in name?
Back in 2010, Ace Metrix research demonstrated that celebrity endorsers often do more to hurt the brand that hires them than to help it in the marketplace.
While non-celebrity commercials averaged 8 percent above the norm in viewer attention, response and persuasion, they found, celebrity spots averaged below it – by as much as 24 to 30 percent.
Today, says branding consultant Denise Lee Yohn, "Everyone knows what a brand endorsement is. You can pay a celebrity to say anything."
The fancy marketing titles, she theorizes, are advertisers' way of trying to evade this well-earned consumer skepticism. "There's a greater authenticity" – or at least an appearance of greater authenticity – "that comes with having a celebrity influencing the business so it's not just a face on the brand."
Of course, when BlackBerry's ambassadress tweets on an iPhone, Pepsi's partners with both the full-sugar soda and Michelle Obama's anti-obesity crusade, and Bud Light Platinum's "creative director and musical curator" gets photographed chugging Coors Light, that does tend to throw this purchased "authenticity" into question.
More hype than help
Authentic or not, the celebrity tactic doesn't always help.
When Diageo hired Sean "Diddy" Combs as "brand manager, CMO and spokesman" for Ciroq vodka, sales went up. But when they hired Pharrell Williams in a similar capacity for Qream liqueur, the 2011 brand launch ended up in a lawsuit.
A real chief creative officer, Pete Favat of the Arnold advertising agency, told Ad Age that "Most [of this] is hype."
Yohn, in a separate statement, agreed. "[Y]ou could say these brands are taking borrowed equity to another level, trading on the celebrities' name at a higher level," she explained.
That's good news for celebrities. But probably not so good for the brands surrendering their marketing strategies and executions to them.