A Good Beginning (But Maybe a Bad Ending For Alexa)


Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

I admit that I’m a skeptic. Maybe that’s why I always wanted to be a journalist because I’m hesitant about believing everything people say without supporting evidence.

As a journalist, I knew that during interviews or, when provided with facts sheets, I might be getting a biased view of a story (because I believe most people, if not everyone, are not completely honest in their discussions with journalists. They either lie or provide incomplete information to bolster their viewpoints.

When I crossed the border to public relations territory, after a few New York City newspapers and a wire service I worked for folded, I witnessed that the majority of PR people chose spokespeople for their accounts, not because they had expertise in the products, but because of their name value, a practice I fought against on accounts that I either managed or played a significant role in as a senior vice president/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, where I managed or played key roles in some of the most prestigious sports and non-sports programs and also traveled the world with high-ranking government officials as a media advisor. I insisted that spokespeople must be a natural fit.

(One story that I enjoy telling is when Pele, the soccer star, first became popular in the U.S. A not very high level account person on a building supply provider account on which I played an important role, came into my office and said, “I was told I have to run this by you, but I’m going to do it regardless of what you say. I’m negotiating with Pele’s agent for him to do a series of radio interviews and speak at builder meetings. What do you think?” “I wouldn’t do that,” I said. But before I could finish my sentence he got up and replied, “I knew that unless you chose the spokesperson you would say no” and stormed from my office. 

Because I had a previous similar situation with this person, and, importantly, I had an excellent relationship with his client over the years, and knew that it wouldn’t damage the excellent client-agency relationship, I did nothing and waited for the fall-out. Three days later, the supervising manager of the account came into my office and said, “Did you know that Pele isn’t fluent in English?” And I told the supervisor the situation, adding that maybe it’ll teach him to listen before thinking he knows it all. Needless to say, the idea of using Pele for radio interviews was dropped. A different client used Pele to introduce a new soccer ball, and we crafted a publicity program that didn’t include him to do much speaking in English.)

I often retold the Pele story to account people who wanted to use celebrities, especially sports stars, as publicity spokespeople, and ended the story by saying, “Make certain that the individual is a natural fit with your product, as I always did on accounts that I controlled or played key roles in. Natural fits include Brooke Shields and Calvin Klein, or the many all-star baseball players I used in promoting Gillette’s All-Star balloting program when they were the sole sponsor of the game, using an addiction expert from a national facility to speak about the affects on impressionable children when their favorite athlete does something unsportsmanlike and using Olympic great Bob Mathias in Olympic-related programs. (Sadly, most sports stars have as much expertise in the products they hawk as I would if I was teaching a course in brain surgery.)

The November 30 editions of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times had stories reporting that former boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and music entrepreneur DJ Khaled, settled charges with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission for helping promote fraudulent cryptocurrency deals.

This is a good start.

For many decades, I’ve believed that using celebrities as spokesperson or in TV commercials promoting products that that they probably don’t have any expertise in is a form of PR and advertising fraud.

Especially distasteful to me, is seeing successful actors like Alex Trebek, Tom Selleck, Fred Thompson, among others, that have hawked financial products to senior Americans. (My advice: Consult a good lawyer or accountant instead of listening to actors reading a script before making financial decisions.)

It’s known in the sports marketing universe that many athletes can make more money from endorsing products than from their playing field salaries. Among the lucky salespeople who have are Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Maria Sharapova, Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer Derrick Rose and Phil Mickelson.

And then there’s Peyton Manning, who has been featured in commercials for so many different products that it’s difficult to keep track without a scorecard.

But it’s just not star athletes and famous actors that are now hawking products. A weight loss product has been using Marie Osmond to try to convince TV viewers that they can lose weight, (and maybe have a figure like Marie) and Rick Harrison of “Pawn Starts” can be seen in TV commercials for an identity theft protection company.

I’m certainly not against people endorsing products that they use in their daily lives. However, in my experience I know of individuals who endorsed a product or PR program, but scoffed at them privately.

Nevertheless, there are some PR programs that are a perfect fit for a spokesperson to promote a client’s product or message. But in my experience, most PR programs use celebrity spokespeople because the account team can’t think of anything else. A well crafted PR program should be able to work without the use of a celebrity endorser. If it can’t, it’s a faulty program. And it shows a lack of creativity.

It’s not that I am against using celebrities as spokespersons as part of a publicity campaign. What I object to is using celebrities as a vehicle to influence impressionable people of all ages to purchase a product that may be unhealthy or that they don’t need because the potential customers are star struck.

For years, during the Golden Days of Hollywood, major film stars promoted smoking, despite it already being known of its negative affects on health. On the sports scene, the first major athlete that I recall being extensively used as a product endorser was baseball’s Joe DiMaggio, who hawked a coffee maker. (At least DiMaggio was known to drink coffee.) 

Of course, some products deserve the attention they receive by using celebrity endorsers. One that stands out is a commercial having actor Ray Liotta tell how he quit smoking. What makes this endorsement more creditable to me than most of the others is when Liotta says, “It works for me” and doesn’t sell it as the greatest thing since the creation of Earth.

On December 3, the New York Times ran a huge article beginning on page one of its business section detailing how companies are looking for ways to promote their products on smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Echo, which currently do not permit paid advertising.  But I’m willing to bet a few Lincolns that in the future the voice of an actor or sports star hawking a brand will accompany your request when you ask Alexa for the latest weather.

There’s a saying that’s famous among advertising agency and sales people: “I can sell an ice box to Eskimos.” Too many people in our business believe doing so makes them a good PR person. Fortunately, not all people in our business feel that way. (Count me among the latter.) There’s another saying that I believe in: “Each morning when I shave I have to look at myself in the mirror.’

Impressionable people, especially children and older adults without family members to help with their financial affairs, are easy targets for celebrities they trust. Many don’t realize that the product endorsers are reading from a script written by writers who are told what to write by agency account executives, whose sole purpose is to increase the sales of client products (what I consider a legal con game.) Many of these endorsers like whatever product pays them to hawk. Remember the Verizon Wireless “can you hear me now” guy, who discovered that Sprint was a better product? (Question: could money have had anything to decide which product to endorse?)

While it’s not legally a crime to endorse a product that the endorser doesn’t use or know much about, it certainly is morally corrupt, which doesn’t seem to bother many people in our business, who use celebrity spokespeople because it’s easier to book them on TV programs or arrange print interviews.

There’s a law principal, caveat emptor, which is Latin for “Let the buyer beware.” People impressed by celebrities endorsing products should remember it, and also should remember that celebrity endorsers are not the best people to believe about products they hawk.

As for celebrities who endorse products that they don’t know much about, there’s also a saying for them. It’s “To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet. The line also applies to PR agencies who are only interested in gaining publicly for their clients, even if their spokespeople are hired gun-slingers who will promote anything that comes with a paycheck.

Arthur Solomon -A Good Beginning (But Maybe a Bad Ending For Alexa)About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr(at)optimum.net.