The celebrity ad is not new. In the 1800s, Pope Leo XIII appeared on posters for a cocaine-laced wine called Vin Mariani. He even awarded a Vatican gold medal to the wine, such was his love.
Much like then, today’s marketing is focused on trying to sell you a lifestyle and persuade you that buying a certain product will express to the world who you are. Celebrity endorsements in particular are very effective at this kind of persuasion, and often lead to big jumps in sales. For example, Alexander McQueen’s sales jumped 27% after Kate Middleton chose the designer for her wedding dress.
While celebrity ads are not necessarily deceptive, they can be, and they are required to follow certain rules. The FTC updated guidelines for celebrity endorsements and testimonials in 2009. These guidelines state that an endorser must disclose their relationship with the advertiser and present their honest opinion of the product featured in the ad. They must also be “a bona fide user of [the product] at the time the endorsement was given.” What it means to be a “bona fide user,” however, is not clearly specified.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does a “bona fide user” use a product once a week? Once a year? Once in a lifetime?
- How honest would your opinion of a product be if you were paid for that opinion?
- Would you use drugstore brand cosmetics on a day-to-day basis if you could afford your own on-call makeup artist?
- Do you think celebrities go out and buy whatever products they’re seen using in paparazzi photos because they love them so much, or because they’re given tons of free swag that they’re expected to carry around?
The point is, the FTC’s guidelines are a little blurry around the edges – and so is the truth behind celebrity endorsements.