Star Power: The Pros and Cons of Celebrity Endorsers
It’s been six years since Lance Armstrong last rode in the Tour de France. It’s been three years since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Armstrong from cycling and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. And it’s been two years since Armstrong sat with Oprah on national television, at last admitting to allegations that had dogged him throughout his career: doping, performance-enhancing drugs, bullying, cover-ups. It was the final unraveling of the great underdog-becomes-champion-becomes-American-hero-story—“one big lie,” Armstrong called it.
Yet there he was, among the 20-strong peloton, riding the climb at Alpe d’Huez and the laps of the Champs-Élysées in the waning days of July, back in the Tour de France.
Well, sort of.
Armstrong was actually riding a day ahead of the Tour, wearing not his customary yellow U.S. Postal Service jersey, but the dark blue getup of Le Tour – One Day Ahead 2015, a charity ride aimed at raising 1 million pounds for British cancer charity Cure Leukaemia. Armstrong had been asked to ride by One Day Ahead organizer Geoff Thomas, a British former soccer-player-turned- cycling-enthusiast who had himself survived cancer. Thomas had flown to Texas and personally appealed to Armstrong, convincing him to participate despite the expected pushback.
And pushback there was. Brian Cookson, president of Union Cycliste Internationale, called Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France “undesirable” and “disrespectful.” The Bretagne-Séché team tweeted that Armstrong was stealing “media interest from riders like ours who never cheated.” Tour rider Geraint Thomas said he and other cyclists were still “paying the price” for Armstrong’s misdeeds, and that he “couldn’t care less” what Armstrong was doing.
For Geoff Thomas, it was a calculated risk. On one hand, Armstrong has always been a lightning rod for controversy. Livestrong, the cancer charity he shaped into a household name, lives on after Armstrong’s 2012 departure, but the organization’s declining revenue—Charity Navigator reports a steady drop from more than $27 million in 2010 to just over $15 million in 2013—neatly coincides with the cyclist’s fall from grace.
On the other hand, publicity, good or bad, is still publicity. And Thomas believed that Armstrong’s presence would do more good than harm. “Lance is going to be paying for his past for a very long time,” said Thomas in a One Day Ahead press release. “But I just saw an opportunity that would allow him to help others. If it magnifies the need for new drugs, new therapies that can save lives, who can argue with that?”
Risk and Reward
Such is the dilemma nonprofits face in working with celebrity endorsers. As high-profile public figures, celebrities are under constant scrutiny. Small mishaps—some errant foul language here, an out-of-context comment there—end up on TMZ, amplified and endlessly analyzed by the media. Other celebrities self-destruct without warning (see: Mel Gibson, Michael Vick, Hulk Hogan), and if the celebrity has ties to a charity or cause, it can lead to a negative, if not always fair, association—even if the organization acts quickly to control the damage.
“The primary danger of an organization or cause associating with anyone—be they a celebrity, staff member or volunteer—is the risk that the person may not exhibit behaviors that are consistent with the values of the organization,” said Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer for marketing intelligence agency IMPACTS, and a member of the board of directors for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. “This is a particularly pronounced risk when working with a celebrity. The same prominence that promises to shine a spotlight on a cause equally risks a negative association should the celebrity end up on the wrong side of the law or a social issue. Organizations need to be as mindful and diligent when researching a celebrity endorser as they are of their executive leadership.”
There are other, lesser, downsides as well. There are legal pitfalls surrounding the use of celebrity names and likenesses. And contacting, courting and communicating with celebrities requires resources that not all nonprofits can muster. “The hardest part is getting your foot in the door and getting them to actually do something in the first place,” explained Lucy Morillo, president and CEO of Miami Children’s Health Foundation. “Believe it or not, working with celebrities is very time consuming. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be dealt with, mostly logistics. But more importantly, celebrities are always busy and are always up to something, so you always need to be mindful of their schedule and try to pencil in whatever important events you want them to support at least five months ahead of time.”
Still, despite the risks and challenges, nonprofits of all sizes continue to partner with celebrities—and with good reason. Research by Rutgers University-Camden professors Erica Harris and Julie Ruth found in a sample of more than 500 celebrity-affiliated charities an increase in public financial support, mainly due to increased credibility. “A brand that is able to break through the clutter of marketing messages by being associated with a well-known, attractive and sometimes expert endorser is typically perceived to be more credible and more likable,” said Ruth in a Rutgers press release. “Both of those aspects—credibility and likeability—add value to a brand, which in turn makes it easier and more likely that consumers would choose the particular brand. We believe it’s a fairly similar process for celebrities and nonprofit organizations, as reflected in donations.”
And while some would dispute those findings—a 2014 study by three British university professors concluded that awareness of celebrity advocates for well-known charities was relatively low—they don’t account for reach. Even if celebrity affiliation doesn’t lead to a direct boost in fundraising, it can have a major impact on visibility for certain causes, creating a trickle-down effect for charities. Dilenschneider noted that the American Red Cross and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two large nonprofit organizations, have a combined 3.6 million Twitter followers. Taylor Swift alone has 61 million. “In addition to their incredible reach, celebrities often serve as conduits to breakthrough markets, including underserved and emerging audiences,” added Dilenschneider. “In these instances, an organization may try to leverage the celebrity’s access and influence to inure to its benefit.”
An Organic Connection
So far, it appears that Geoff Thomas’s gamble on Lance Armstrong paid off. According to USA Today, the ride had raised 600,000 pounds as of July 17, more than half of its 2015 goal and almost a third of its 2-million-pound 2016 goal. (This despite Armstrong’s apparent inability to stay out of the negative headlines. Leading up to his charity Tour de France ride, Armstrong insinuated on Twitter and in an interview with Sky Sports News that eventual 2015 Tour champion Chris Froome—along with most of the other Tour riders—was somehow involved in doping.)
Clearly, Armstrong is still a big enough name to command attention for a cause. And while he may no longer be the poster child for celebrity endorsers, his recent fundraising successes for One Day Ahead at least offer a valuable lesson for nonprofits considering celebrity affiliations. Armstrong, for all his offenses, has retained residual goodwill among cancer survivors, many of whom—Thomas included—drew inspiration from him before his downfall. Say what you want about Armstrong, but his connection to the cancer-charity cause is an organic one, unforced and rooted strongly in personal experience. This is precisely the kind of affiliation nonprofits should look for when seeking out celebrity endorsers.
“You want to make sure that the celebrity you are reaching out to connects with your foundation and its mission. It doesn’t make sense to reach out to a celebrity that has absolutely nothing to do with your organization’s mission, because then that means that you aren’t reaching your target audience,” said Morillo. “The Miami Children’s Health Foundation supports Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, and therefore our target is reaching out to celebrities who care about children’s health on a personal level, because they are a parent or a celebrity that generally supports children’s causes.”
“Audiences are incredibly savvy and sophisticated—they can spot a dilettante a mile away,” added Dilenschneider. “Authenticity matters. An organization risks eroding its credibility by chasing celebrity interlopers. A great example of an authentic, truly committed celebrity endorser is Leonardo DiCaprio and his work with numerous ocean conservation organizations. More than a mere famous face, he is incredibly knowledgeable about environmental issues and is himself a major donor to ocean-related causes. Ideally, organizations should seek associations with persons who transcend the role of celebrity spokesperson and are true evangelists.”
Making It Work
Still, this scenario is rare. Celebrities don’t often become willing spokespersons, actively championing a nonprofit’s cause out of some deep personal conviction. But when they do, the results can be spectacular—especially if the nonprofit acts quickly to connect with the celebrity. Case in point: The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In June 2015, an HSUS investigation found that Costco had failed to deliver on its 2007 promise to convert to 100 percent cage-free eggs—its chickens were crammed in small cages and lived in substandard conditions, while the wholesale giant’s egg cartons depicted free-range birds in open pasture. HSUS shared the footage with ABC’s Nightline and other news outlets, sparking a public outcry against Costco’s supply-chain practices.
It was a coup for the animal protection organization, generating half-a-million YouTube plays and millions of Facebook views in the month following its release. But it wasn’t until actor Ryan Gosling got involved that the campaign blew up. “Our hope all along was that once we showed Costco and the public what was happening in the company’s supply system, Costco would agree it’s time to change and set a timeline for reaching 100 percent cage-free eggs,” said Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director for HSUS. “Ryan Gosling saw the footage—and Costco’s response—and wanted to take action. Like most people, Ryan cares about animals and knows that we can do better than cramming them in cages.”
“So we worked with him to send a letter to the company’s CEO, which was seen by millions the world over,” Prescott continued. “After Ryan Gosling’s letter to Costco received global media coverage, Bill Maher published an op-ed in the New York Times voicing his support for Costco switching to cage-free eggs. That led to further media coverage by CNN, CBS and others.”
Gosling sought out HSUS, and the organization capitalized, turning what could have been a standard celebrity endorsement into a viral marketing windfall. It won’t always work this way. “Virality is fickle—and extremely hard to plan and predict,” said Dilenschneider. “I recommend that organizations seeking organic celebrity participation focus on the relevance and authenticity of their message. Is the campaign message meaningful to others? Is it actionable? Does it resonate as true with your hopeful audiences? These are the essential ingredients of any campaign, be it celebrity-affiliated or otherwise.”
More often than not, celebrity support has to be sought out and paid for—and that’s OK. By nature, some causes will attract more organic celebrity support than others. Paid endorsements level the playing field, allowing smaller nonprofits and those with less-sexy (but no-less important) missions to keep up with big-name organizations. You just have to know where to start.
“If you’re starting from scratch, then you want to find out who is the celebrity’s manager and the publicist. And from there, it’s all about cold pitching,” said Morillo. “But, always start with a small request or minimal information and work your way up to gauge if they are receptive. From there, and if everything goes well, you can try to engage them even more. And never give up! Just because you try to reach out once or twice and they shut you down, doesn’t mean that they won’t ever support you. If you truly believe that there’s a certain celebrity that is perfect for your organization, keep reaching out with different pitches on how they can get involved."