Brand Strategy

Despite a flurry of scandals, celebrity partnerships show no sign of slowing down

Increased risk hasn’t scared brands away, but some say the vetting process has gotten more intense.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Pepsi and Britney, Doritos and Lil Nas X, Snickers and the late Betty White. When done right, star-studded Super Bowl commercials can become pop-culture references for years to come. Just last year, roughly 50 celebrities made an appearance in a Super Bowl ad.

But partnering with a celebrity can be risky (see: Lacoste and Novak Djokovic, Peloton and Chris Noth, or Dior and Travis Scott). On the biggest brand-centric day of the year, how can Super Bowl advertisers ensure that their spokesperson doesn’t end up being a liability?

Of course, there’s no way to predict the future. However, Doug Shabelman, CEO of marketing agency Burns Entertainment, told Marketing Brew assessing brand-safety risks is often the first step before making any partnership suggestions. “Our job is to educate and steer [brands] in the right direction,” he said.

Burns Entertainment is working on three Super Bowl commercials this year, which involve stars from Marvel and Ted Lasso. According to Shabelman, the more high-profile the celebrity (and the budget), the more in-depth the background research. That’s especially true for the Super Bowl.

He compared a low-budget influencer campaign to one with a celebrity like Scarlett Johansson: More resources are going to go toward vetting Johansson than the influencer, looking back at her brand partnership history, where her past campaigns performed well, and any potential issues that could come up.

If you are what you say you are

But that’s not to say social media stars are being overlooked. Nowadays, they’re utilized the same way models, actors, and singers are in campaigns. In 2020, TikTok’s favorite dancer, Charli D’Amelio, was featured in a Super Bowl ad for Sabra hummus.

“With celebrities, it’s a little bit easier to know [if] they have legal troubles right now or what’s been in the press about them,” Chris Pearson, director of talent management at influencer marketing platform Captiv8, told us. “When we start getting into influencers, they probably don’t have all that press, so we have to do a deeper dive.”

According to Pearson, Captiv8 has software that scans social media accounts of potential influencer partners, going back through their posts and updating in real time. It then gives them a brand safety score out of 100. Sometimes what it picks up, like political statements or curse words, might not be a concern for brands, depending on what they’re looking for. But Pearson said it’s still important to be aware.

“The last thing we want to do is put someone in front of a brand, and then all of a sudden, it comes out that this person had some stuff in the past that the brand wouldn’t be thrilled with,” he explained.

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Since joining Captiv8 last April, Pearson said he hasn’t seen a contract terminated between brand partners because of a spokesperson’s behavior. Shabelman, who has been at Burns for more than 26 years, said he’s seen it come up a few times.

He recalled one instance where an athlete was entangled in “serious legal issues,” so Burns recommended the brand terminate the contract. Another time, a celebrity took part in a photoshoot that was flagged as potentially inappropriate by what Shabelman called a “wholesome” brand partner. He said Burns recommended not dropping the celebrity because doing so would have drawn more attention to what Shabelman considered a non-issue.

I’ll follow you until you love me

Even with risks involved, Shabelman said most brands aren’t deterred by stories of celeb-deals-gone-bad. “The majority of campaigns are done very peacefully and in the right way with a lot of success; otherwise, people wouldn’t continue to do it,” he said.

In fact, Shabelman believes demand for famous faces won’t slow down any time soon for three major reasons:

  • The fleeting nature of the industry: “I don’t think that a lot of brands think long-term about their choice and celebrity because they’re often on to the next campaign,” he said.
  • The advantage of “breaking through the clutter” by using someone recognizable.
  • And the ever-churning news cycle. He pointed to the Peloton/Chris Noth example, asking whether it actually impacted sales or was simply a fleeting PR moment. “That’s not to minimize what these people have done, but do I think it has a long-term impact on the brand? I really don’t. And I think history has kind of shown that.”

When it comes to the Super Bowl specifically, Nick Miaritis, EVP at creative media agency VaynerMedia, agrees that celebrity ads aren’t going away any time soon, but certainly the vetting process has gotten more intense—something he said was a net-positive change, especially for longer-term brand deals.

Vayner recently unveiled its Super Bowl ad, which will only run in some cities, for Planter’s, starring Ken Jeong and Joel McHale from Community. Miaritis said Jeong and McHale were selected based on their humor and ability to play off of one another.

“On the world’s biggest stage, the bar is high, and you want the best performers to perform the concept you have,” he said. “That’s why so many people turn to celebrities.”

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