October 21, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

PR and the Choppy Waters of Celebrity Endorsement

PR and the Choppy Waters of Celebrity Endorsement

We don’t talk much about the celebrity endorsement/marketing side of PR here on Media Bullseye–mostly because I tend to think that celebrity endorsement, while presumably effective considering its widespread use, tends to play into a stereotype of PR that I generally don’t care to reinforce. (That PR=publicist.) It is also an area that I think may be overrated, when examining the benefits versus the possible risks–celebrity endorsers have on occasion made rather large splashes in the water during their falls from grace.

The use of the celebrity promoter persists, so I have to assume that the attention garnered must be demonstrating results in some real way. And by “real way” I’m talking dollars of products purchased, not fat clip books showing numbers of mentions, or help us all, definitely not AVEs.

Enter the most recent high-profile celebrity endorsement: Paula Deen. While most people I know are well aware of who Paula Deen is, for the uninitiated, she’s long been a fixture on the TV “Celebrity” cook scene. She has published several cookbooks and had her own Food Network TV specials, and the “trademark” of her dishes is that they are loaded–really loaded–with sugar, salt, and fat (usually butter). The woman deep-fries lasagna, and serves a “brunch burger” that is a burger topped with bacon (of course) and an egg served on two glazed donuts instead of a bun, for heaven’s sake. I’m not a fan (I’m Team Bourdain), but clearly she strikes a chord with people as she’s very popular and her cookbooks sell well. She’s also an American success story, as she was near-penniless at one point and has worked hard and achieved success.

She is also the new celebrity spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical manufacturer of diabetes medications, including Victoza, a medication to treat Type 2 diabetes. Deen disclosed last week that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago.

And this is where I start wondering what Novo Nordisk was trying to achieve in selecting her as a celebrity endorser. Deen has, for years, been publicly unapologetic for the nutritional stats of the food she prepares, and apparently continued to promote the same cooking style after her diagnosis. She’s also admitted that she’s been a smoker for 50+ years (and made this announcement on Dr. Oz’s show, wherein she asks for his help to quit, so good for her on that point). If we look at the role of the celebrity endorser as an Influencer, who is their target audience? If we look at the role of the celebrity endorser as an Aspirational figure, does Deen match that role?

Thus far, the loudest criticism has surrounded her decision to disclose her condition only after she secured what we can guess was a fairly lucrative contract to promote a pharmaceutical product. I’m of the opinion that the diagnosis is hers and she has the right to disclose it or not.  I do think that there are ethics questions surrounding her decision to continue to promote unhealthy food after she was diagnosed–obesity is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes–but more to the point of this post, there are PR ramifications for all of these decisions. I don’t think I’m alone in this, as Deen’s PR representative of the last six years has quit, allegedly over Deen’s decision to endorse the drug.

It just leaves me wondering, again, are celebrity endorsements really worth the trouble?

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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