Even though I’ve long ago forgotten the brand name and baseball player, I vividly recall the the conversation. When I was about nine years old, still too young to shave, I walked in on my father who was shaving in front of the bathroom mirror.
Being inordinately inquisitive when it came to things like consumer products and leisure time, I innocently asked my dad why he wasn’t using the brand of shaving cream being endorsed by a famous baseball player. We’d both seen the advertisement, and were both ardent baseball fans.
Without sounding cynical or contemptuous, he answered by saying that the reason this player was publicly recommending the shaving cream was because the manufacturer had paid him to do it. That was it in a nutshell. He was being paid to say he liked it. In fact, truth be told, it was entirely possible that the player had never even used this product, much less preferred it over others.
Not to sound overly dramatic, but my dad’s casual explanation altered my life ever so slightly. Here I was, young enough to still believe in Santa Claus (which I did), but already old enough to regard celebrity endorsements as bullshit. Later of course, my belief in Santa fell by the wayside, as did the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and, predictably, my belief in God.
All of which brings us to Tom Selleck, an actor I’ve always enjoyed watching. How could this charismatic former TV star (“Magnum P.I.”) have been reduced to shilling for a shady mortgage company? It was disgraceful.
And it was more than the mere fact that he had allowed himself to become a glorified carnival barker. What was most annoying about the commercial was Selleck’s overly earnest manner. The eruption of phony vitality and near manic sincerity brought to mind a pesky boil being lanced.
It’s one thing for Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, et al, to endorse upscale products. But becoming a shill for home loans ain’t in that league. No matter how you cut it, peddling reverse mortgages to addled senior citizens is undignified. Was Selleck that hard up? Had the ’07 “Too Big to Fail” financial crisis wiped him out?
Which brings us to Tiger Woods. Because Tiger was still a wealthy man, he wasn’t at the mercy of market forces. He could pick and choose his spots. Unlike celebrities who had to take what was offered, Tiger didn’t have to stoop to selling hemorrhoid cream or representing Chico’s Bail Bonds. Therefore, it was surprising when he agreed to be filmed sitting behind the wheel of a Buick Lacrosse.
This was going to be a tough sell. The advertisers wanted us to believe that a rich, young, exciting, iconic African-American athlete would rather drive the same car that his grandpa drove rather than, say, a snazzy Corvette or Ferrari or Lamborghini.
But right out of the blocks, we all knew it was a lie. Tiger did not drive a Buick. When he had that auto accident in 2009, in Florida, it was widely reported that he was driving a brand new Cadillac Escalade, which made infinitely more sense. He had a wife and a kid. A luxury SUV was totally appropriate. But certainly not a Buick sedan.
As for the advertisers, they take refuge in a counter-argument. They insist that it’s never been about credibility or believability. Rather, it’s all about association. They don’t need us to believe that Tiger himself actually drives a Buick. That bit of information is irrelevant. What they need us to do is associate the celebrity with the brand.
Essentially, all that those Buick advertisers ask of us is that whenever we watch Tiger play golf, or read about him, or see a photograph of him, we associate him with a Buick. Tiger = Buick. Buick = Tiger. There is some heavy subliminal shit being transmitted and received in that equation. The Devil’s work.
On the other hand, if it’s all about “association,” one wonders why they haven’t resorted to the “reverse appeal” approach. Why haven’t companies attacked their competition by using a “negative association”? For example, why didn’t Kellogg’s hire Charles Manson to go on TV and proudly declare that his favorite cereal was General Mills’ Wheaties? Sales would have plummeted.
Of course, despite the faux outrage, we’re really quibbling here. All advertisements—not just those relying on celebrity endorsements—are based on some measure of deceit. They are all filled with varying amounts of exaggerations, misinformation, disinformation, trickery, and outright lies.
Yet everyone I’ve ever talked to insisted they were already aware that most advertisements were “intentionally misleading.” As such, they considered themselves more or less immune to them. No one considered themselves to be gullible enough to fall for those ads. They took pride in having built-in bullshit detectors.
And that’s why American companies continue to spend billions of dollars a year on TV commercials. Because we’re immune to them. Because commercials don’t influence us.