Despite a wave of scandals, celebrity partnerships show no signs of slowing down

Pepsi and Britney, Doritos and Lil Nas X, Snickers and the late Betty White. When done right, star-studded Super Bowl ads can become pop culture staples for years to come. Last year, about 50 celebrities made an appearance in a Super Bowl commercial.

But associating with a celebrity can be risky (see: Lacoste and Novak Djokovic, Peloton and Chris Noth, or Dior and Travis Scott). On the biggest brand-focused day of the year, how can Super Bowl advertisers ensure their spokesperson doesn’t end up being a liability?

Of course, there is no way to predict the future. However, Doug Shabelman, CEO of marketing agency Burns Entertainment, told Marketing Brew that assessing brand safety risks is often the first step before making partnership suggestions. “Our job is to educate and guide [brands] in the right direction,” he said.

Burns Entertainment is working on three Super Bowl commercials this year, which involve Marvel stars and Ted Lasso. According to Shabelman, the bigger the celebrity (and the budget), the deeper the background research. This is especially true for the Super Bowl.

He compared a low-budget influencer campaign to a campaign with a celebrity like Scarlett Johansson: more resources will be spent on vetting Johansson than the influencer, going back to the history of his partnership with the brand, where his past campaigns have done well and any potential issues that may come.

If you are what you say you are

But that’s not to say social media stars are overlooked. Nowadays, they are used in the same way as models, actors and singers are in the countryside. In 2020, TikTok’s favorite dancer, Charli D’Amelio, was featured in a Super Bowl ad for Sabra hummus.

According to Pearson, Captiv8 has software that scans the social media accounts of potential influencer partners, crawling through their posts and updating them in real time. It then assigns them a brand safety score out of 100. Sometimes what it detects, such as political statements or swear words, may not be of concern to brands, depending on what they are looking for. But Pearson said it was still important to be aware.

“The last thing we want to do is put someone in front of a brand, and then all of a sudden it turns out that that person has had some stuff in the past that the brand wouldn’t be happy about,” said he explained.

Since joining Captiv8 last April, Pearson said he has not seen a contract terminated between brand partners due to a spokesperson’s behavior. Shabelman, who has worked at Burns for more than 26 years, said he saw him several times.

He recalled a case where an athlete was embroiled in “serious legal issues”, so Burns recommended the brand terminate the contract. Another time, a celebrity took part in a photo shoot that was flagged as potentially inappropriate by what Shabelman called a “healthy” brand partner. He said Burns recommended not giving up fame because it would have brought more attention to what Shabelman considered a non-issue.

I will follow you until you love me

Even with the risks involved, Shabelman said most brands aren’t deterred by stories of celebrities gone bad. “Most of the campaigns are done very peacefully and in the right way with great success; otherwise people wouldn’t keep doing it,” he said.

In fact, Shabelman thinks the demand for famous faces won’t slow down anytime soon for three main reasons:

  • The fleeting nature of the industry: “I don’t think a lot of brands think long-term about their choice and their stardom, because they’re often on the next campaign,” he said.
  • The “clutter-busting” advantage of using someone recognizable.
  • And the ever-changing news cycle. He pointed to the example of Peloton/Chris Noth, asking if it actually had an impact on sales or if it was just a fleeting PR moment. “Not to minimize what these people have done, but do I think it has a long term impact on the brand? I really do not know. And I think history kind of showed that.

When it comes to the Super Bowl specifically, Nick Miaritis, executive vice president of creative media agency VaynerMedia, agrees that celebrity ads aren’t going away anytime soon, but the vetting process has certainly gotten more intense – something he said was a net positive change, especially for longer-term brand deals.

Vayner recently unveiled his Super Bowl ad, which will only air in select cities, for Planter’s, starring Ken Jeong and Joel McHale of Community. Miaritis said Jeong and McHale were selected based on their humor and ability to play against each other.

“On the biggest stage in the world, the bar is set high and you want the best performers to execute the concept that you have,” he said. “That’s why so many people turn to celebrities.”