Image is everything— Or is it?

January 13, 2010, Chennai

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Business advertisers and marketers depend on one thing to sell their products. That is “image”. That is why they choose celebrities to pitch their products in newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and billboards at important landmarks. Businesses pay lofty sums to the celebrities to appear at events, promote their products, and use the picture and name of the celebrities to increase their sales and profits.

Of course, they add those expenses to their products and collect them from the consumers. Businesses think that by using a celebrity they can indelibly etch their product in the minds of the consumers.

In the days yore there used to be some ad in Thamizh magazines featuring movie stars touting bath soaps-- “en mEniyin sarumam miLira nAn xxxx soap upayOgikkiREn”---என் மேனியின் சருமம் மிளிர நான் xxxx சோப் உபயோகிக்கிறேன்” (for a glowing complexion of my body I use XXX soap) was the message. The tagline would be “cinema nakshaththirangaLin azhagu tharum soap” -- சினிமா நக்ஷத்திரங்களின் அழகு தரும் சோப் (the soap which affords beauty to movie stars). The marketers were capitalizing on mass psychology. If a glamorous movie star uses a particular soap would the average person also get glamorous by using the same soap? Apparently it is so because the particular soap which carried such an ad outsold its competition and increased the profits for its manufacturer. Two competing brands have a product that is very similar, if not the same. In order to gain a competitive advantage, advertisers need to sell more than the product; they need to sell an image. In doing so, advertisers get people to buy not only their product but also the lifestyle and culture that it stands for. But such practice is inevitably accompanied by some peril.

Let us look at some recent happenings. Until a few months ago businesses in the U.S. could not get enough of Tiger Woods, the hugely successful professional golfer and the pitchman for several products. “Strategy is 40% and execution is 60%” was the theme of one of the ads for Accenture picturing Tiger Woods getting his ball out of a sand trap or from behind a rock into the putting green. Accenture expected businessmen, many of whom play golf, to flock to Accenture for consulting work through such ads. 

At the end of 2009 they all wished they never heard of him. Now nobody wants to touch him with a ten-foot pole. Why? In one word, Image. Yes, image is everything in advertising. While the positive image enhances sales, negative image invites disaster. Almost all businesses which were proud to be associated with Tiger Woods’ image until recently are now distancing themselves from him. A T & T, Pepsi, Tag Heur (watch maker), Gillette, and Accenture (the global consulting company) all rushed out of the exit door in the last month or so. Why? Tiger Woods has admitted to several cases of marital infidelity. That portends trouble for businesses that sell “ethical” products.

In December 2009 Accenture severed their ties with Mr. Woods. Tag Heur, the Swiss watchmaker, while not severing the connection has cut back on their ads featuring him in the U.S. A T & T declared that its sponsorship of Tiger Jam, a star-studded concert in support of the charitable foundation of Mr. Woods has “expired” (civilized speak for “termination”). PepsiCo Inc. marketed a sports drink named “Tiger” until recently which is now slated for extinction. Nike Inc. has however stood by their pitchman. 

While some profess that an athlete’s prowess in his chosen sport has nothing to do with his personal life, businesses are not unaware of the negative image problem in using the “fallen” athlete in their marketing efforts.  Bad image can do some serious damage. It is obvious that the products are bought by the consumers based on their merits. If a product is advertised it has more exposure. But if the person who touts the product happens to be a celebrity then it sells more but it comes with a cost.  Is it possible to do away with celebrity advertising at all? It appears not. If one product uses a celebrity its competing product will be at a disadvantage if that product does not use a similar person. It is a rat race.  Why can’t the manufacturers use the average consumer to sell the product in order to be more realistic? The business can supply the person with products from the company for a lifetime in exchange for touting the product. It is not done because the business does not believe that the product will 
sell more if they use an “ordinary” person. So it goes!

Marketing experts are aware of the saying, “those who live by the sword die by the sword” but still they are motivated to seek star athletes since hope trumps experience.  Time and again many star athletes had let their sponsors and public down in the “character” department. Still for advertisers, image (perhaps a new one) is everything.