Appeal to Celebrity
Celebrity C endorses Brand X (or Candidate Y, or Cause Z).
Therefore, Brand X (or Candidate Y, or Cause Z) is good.
Charley Garment was a methodical little man with a beard who had been producer of the Monitor show on NBC radio. … [He] came to supervise a series of endorsements… There were two kinds: political and celebrity. …[T]he day [he] started, the only names on the celebrity list were Art Linkletter, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, John Wayne, and Lawrence Welk. … The first job [he] was given was to film a commercial with Connie Francis.
"I don't know whether it's better to have her come on straight or open up with a scene of her listening to the end of her own recording of the Nixon jingle," [he] was saying. "Then we could have the announcer come out and say, 'Well, Connie, we know you like Richard Nixon. How about telling us why?' And then she could go into it." …
Connie Francis once had been very popular with those records where her voice was recorded on several different tracks and then all the tracks were played together so she sounded like the McGuire Sisters. Later, when that novelty wore off, she began to make records of Italian songs. Much later, when even the Italian songs were not getting played much on the radio, she started to show up at places like the Merv Griffin Show…
The commercial ran on the Laugh-In show in September. The next day, in the Times, Jack Gould wrote that it "embraced all the ills of the oversimplified campaign spot announcement. … Admittedly, it is a forlorn hope but one could wish that the supporters of Mr. Nixon, Vice President Humphrey and Mr. Wallace would keep tawdry advertising pitches out of the business of choosing a President."1
Appealing to celebrity is one of the most common forms of fallacious appeal to authority. Celebrity endorsement of products is so common that we hardly notice it or wonder why Michael Jordan is trying to sell us underwear2. Moreover, in addition to products, celebrities often endorse political candidates, and during every presidential election year each candidate rounds up his own stable of famous supporters. In addition, celebrities publicly espouse every political, religious, and charitable cause, and some has-beens build second careers in the public eye as spokespeople for causes.
What is wrong with appealing to celebrity? There are two problems:
- Since most celebrities are actors or sports stars, they are seldom experts on the products or causes that they endorse. Sometimes the advertisers even attempt to exploit confusion between fantasy and reality by selecting actors to endorse products based on the fictional characters they play. Infamously, one old television commercial for cough syrup began with an actor saying: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."3 Similarly, the actor Robert Young, who was best known for his television role as "Marcus Welby, M.D.", was a spokesman for decaffeinated coffee4. These were not real doctors, but make-believe ones, who did not have real medical expertise, just make-believe expertise.
Of course, sports celebrities often endorse athletic shoes and other equipment, and it is at least plausible that they have expertise with these products. However, they raise the second problem with celebrity appeals:
- Most celebrities who endorse products are paid to do so, and thus the endorsement is not a disinterested one. Celebrities who endorse charities or political candidates probably are not paid money, but they often benefit from the association with a good cause or the publicity that comes from controversy.5
Who are celebrities? Essentially, they are people famous enough that their names and faces are recognized by the average person, who may know little else about them. Celebrity status is primarily determined by appearance on television, though movies are also still important. So, most celebrities are actors, musicians, or sport players. A few politicians and an occasional author or artist manage to break into the ranks of celebrity, but this is still usually the result of appearing on TV. There are also those who gain fleeting celebrity―"fifteen minutes of fame"―through connection with some public scandal or notorious crime. Some celebrities are even "famous for being famous"; we know that the person is well-known, but we no longer know why. Presumably, at some point earlier in their lives, such celebrities did something to gain fame, but having attained celebrity status they maintain it by using it to get publicity.
Celebrities are rarely police officers, firefighters, soldiers, physicians, nurses, scientists, or teachers. They are, instead, people who are good at pretending to be all of these things. It is useful to keep this in mind when they try to sell us a product, a presidential candidate, a charity, or a political cause.
- Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President 1968 (Pocket Books, 1972), pp. 74-76.
- Nina Mandell, "Michael Jordan celebrates 25 years of underwear ads with new Hanes commercial", USA Today, 7/17/2014.
- Kora Kovalchik, "Who Originally Said 'I'm Not a Doctor but I Play One on TV'?", Mental Floss, 4/22/2014.
- Eric Pace, "Advertising; Last Cup of Sanka for Dr. Welby", The New York Times, 8/26/1982.
- Some advertisers attempt to use doublespeak to disguise the fact that their spokespersons are paid. They put the words "compensated endorsement" in small print at the bottom of the screen, apparently hoping that the viewers will not understand that these eleven-letter words mean that the spokesperson is paid.