Paying a celebrity to endorse a product is a time-honored marketing tradition. There are a number of strategies to take. Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign featuring Michael Jordan qualifies as the “aspirational” strategy intended to tap into consumer desire to emulate certain parts (maybe even all parts) of the celebrity endorser. The Rolex campaign featuring Roger Federer represents a strategy to equate a high-end watch brand with a tennis player who is known for being the best at his craft while showing professionalism and sportsmanship in the process. Plenty of cosmetic companies have aligned themselves with famous models and actresses with the intention of linking one’s beauty to the other’s lipstick and blush. Finally, there are celebrity endorsement strategies that seem to follow a “break the rules” strategy. Why is anyone supposed to buy a “healthy eating” indoor grill from a former boxing champion? Because he lost weight using it?**
What is common to all of these strategies is the fact that the company uses the celebrity’s name in its advertisements, letting consumers take the celebrity and the product on their own terms. A more subtle strategy is to use a celebrity whose face is recognizable because he or she has long been associated with a certain character on TV or in film, but whose actual name isn’t on the top of every consumer’s head. No A-listers here. Perhaps the best representation of this strategy is TD Ameritrade’s spots with Sam Watterson, better known to viewers as hard-nose New York prosecutor Jack McCoy on Law and Order. Nearly all of the TD Ameritrade spots play on Watterson’s television persona, using it, not Watterson himself, as a source of authority. None of the ads explicitly state who the celebrity or the celebrity’s on-camera persona is. Take this recent 30-second ad, “O is for objectivity.”
TD Ameritrade is a particularly interesting company because it has used a rotating stable of Law and Order personalities to sell its products, swapping out pitchmen depending on the economic climate and the industry’s competitive environment. Before Watterson, TD Ameritrade used the actor who played wise district attorney Adam Schiff. Before him, the company used the actor who played detective Lennie Briscoe. All of these ads build on the tendency of our automatic system to make certain associations immediately and without effort. Watterson appears on camera; your mind jumps to Jack McCoy; the advertisement’s message is filtered through the McCoy persona. No consumer thinks they’d be swayed by the words of a television actor who played a tough prosecutor because of the words he uttered while in character. Advertising executives think otherwise.
Watterson has been part of Law and Order for so long that he’s one of the more complex characters on a show that largely deals in ideal types. John Swansburg notes that TD Ameritrade switched to Watterson when the economy was picking up in 2003 and the company was going after brokerage rivals Charles Schwab and Merrill Lynch.
(McCoy) wears a Barbour jacket, but he rides a motorcycle; he’s a workaholic, but he’s been known to get it on with his absurdly attractive assistant district attorneys. He’s a cautious optimist: He’ll offer up a slap-on-the-wrist plea bargain if he has to, but he’d usually rather risk prosecuting defendants at trial, confident he can persuade a jury to issue a tough sentence instead of a not-guilty verdict.
In 2010, the McCoy persona is still a strong fit with the times. He’s not a perfect person outside the courtroom, but he plays within the rules inside it. He’s above politics and dirty schemes. He speaks his mind to his bosses, even if they sometimes overrule him. And he goes after bad guys whatever color their collars are. In other words, he’s the antithesis of the Wall Street banker caricatures that loom large in the wake of the financial crisis. Jack McCoy even prosecuted some of those Wall Street bankers! With the stock market bouncing around, look for TD Ameritrade to keep Watterson around for a while longer. Law and Order may be leaving New York for good, but it looks like Jack McCoy will land on his feet just fine.
For a throw-back example of TD Ameritrade’s strategy, check out this old advertisement for caffeine-free Sanka coffee featuring Robert Welby, who played a physician in the ABC series Marcus Welby, M.D.
**Former boxing champ George Foreman doesn’t just endorse a grill. He owns the company that makes it. The Nudge blog’s guess is that the success of the George Foreman grill is due largely to Foreman’s salesmanship, not the actual celebrity endorsement.