Why does celebrity sell?

Well, one thing that is fairly ubiquitous to most adverts is the presence of a celebrity. Clutching a bottle of perfume or extolling the virtues of a certain brand of makeup,...
10 October 2010

Interview with 

Mirre Stallen, Erasmus University


Sarah -    Well, one thing that is fairly ubiquitous to most adverts is the presence of a celebrity.  Clutching a bottle of perfume or extolling the virtues of a certain brand of makeup, advertisers know that a quick glimpse of celebrity will mean a rocket in sales, and behavioural studies have shown this too.  But is there really a neurological basis for why this works?  Mirre Stallen is from Erasmus University in the Netherlands and she joins us now to talk about this.  Mirre, hello.

Mirre -   Hello.

Sarah -   So why are we so obsessed with celebrities?  What is the neurological basis for why we respond to them?

Mirre -   So, what we did was that we showed some kind of imitation of celebrity advertisements to people in our brain scanners and what we found is that when people see a celebrity face that's paired with a product, we saw activity in an area of the brain that's called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a very fancy name, and that area was particularly active when people saw a famous face with the product.  And that suggested that positive emotions that are linked to a celebrity get transferred to the product and well, that's more or less what the neurological basis in this is.  The positive emotions that are linked to the celebrity get transferred to the product.  Next time, if you see those products like in a shop or a sale, you have some positive associations with it and what we also saw is that this positive association seems to come from memories that you have linked to the celebrity because you have experiences with the celebrity face. For movies or theatres, you tend to recollect some memories automatically and that's where the positive emotion seem to come from.

Vin Mariani Wine Advert

Sarah -   So the medial orbitofrontal cortex is involved in taking those positive memories that you have attached to that celebrity and then transferring them to the product, but what would happen if you had a negative view of a particular celebrity?

Mirre -   Yeah.  We didn't test that, but it's very likely that the same mechanism will be underlying this, but then it won't be the positive emotions that get transferred but the negative ones.  So, if you have a celebrity that's advertising your product, yeah, you have to be really cautious because if his image is changing into a negative personality, you risk a chance that your product will get negative associations by showing your product together with this person.

Sarah -   So I suppose maybe in the future we could see companies using these sorts of studies to compare different celebrities the average view of these people to then choose which celebrity to advertise their product.

Mirre -   Yeah, sure but I think that is already done.  Like people already know, marketers know, that celebrities work and that they have to be aware of this.  So yeah, celebrities definitely have to be tested before they get used.

Chris -   Mirre, can I ask you a question?

Mirre -   Sure.

Chris -   Because I've got a tweet here from someone whose initials on Twitter start OB and they say, "Why is it that when I hear the muzac version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, I desperately want to buy deodorant?"  My question to you is, is it just the celebrity or is it something that's associated with celebrity, a piece of music which is indirectly coming from a celebrity which can also have this sort of relationship?

Mirre -   Yeah, that's how it goes.  So, it's all about associations.  So you might have association with the song, with the celebrity, and then when you hear that song, you think about the product that has been advertised by the celebrity.  It's like going all-fire associations, so one association can activate another one, and it can activate another one, and that's how it can get this indirect associations that can happen when you hear a song or so, yeah.


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