Hulu decided to do something clever. So it hired celebrity influencers–NBA stars Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo–and then put them into a series of commercials it called “Hulu Sellouts.” The whole point was to promo the streaming service while making it absolutely clear that their participation was all about the money.
Influencer are all the rage and, if you’re interested in effective marketing, you have to ask yourself why. Many of them rent their audiences, as branded content strategist Lena Katz showed when she turned an uncooked potato into a figure with a following in two weeks. Amazon has its own group of influencers that reportedly work via affiliation links for percentages of sales, which at least means Amazon can track the effectiveness.
What Hulu did is quite similar to the RXBar ad last summer, when it hired Ice-T for one of its commercials. The actor and rapper says, “It’s one of those commercials with a rapper–you can’t even remember his name–comes out and says something dumb about an RXBar.”
This is two-pronged. On aspect is being clear on advertising regulations. The Federal Trade Commission says that if you’re taking money to promote a product, you have to explicitly say so in some manner. As Hulu vice president for content marketing Ryan Crosby told the Wall Street Journal, “Everyone is looking at what’s happening in social promotions. You’re not fooling anyone when you do these ads.”
The other aspect is advertising as postmodernist statement, rather than postmodernist literature looking at an ad. It’s an eyewink, letting consumers know that you know that they know what’s really going on. If they give it that much thought.
The whole approach is already tired and stale. There is nothing new about using “influencers” or making inside statements about their use. The connection between recognizable name as a trusted vehicle and promotion goes back a long way. Technically, you could say that pottery and china designer and manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood used royal warrants as endorsements, promoting his products as used by English royalty. In the late nineteenth century, companies used trade cars featuring the brand and an image of a sports or entertainment figure. Tobacco companies made heavy use of name endorsers in the early twentieth century.
There’s also nothing new about using endorsements with tongue planted in cheek. This was a common device used in the 1930s and 40s on radio. Promotional messages were inserted into the middle of a comedy show, receiving the same insider view that some marketers use today.
With the drive to using influencers and then finding new and clever ways to distinguish their brands from others, marketers have forgotten a data-driven lesson that’s been underscored time and again. Whether you call them celebrities or influencers (because Andy Warhol was right that virtually everyone would be famous for 15 minutes), it’s not clear that ad strategies dependent on celebrities, let alone influencers, work.
It does sometimes, like when Meghan Markle wears a piece of clothing and then there’s a run on the item. But often it’s the celebrity, not the product, that’s remembered. Ad industry giant David Ogilvy wrote about this years ago:
Viewers have a way of remembering the celebrity while forgetting the product. I did not know this when I paid Eleanor Roosevelt $ 35,000 to make a commercial for margarine. She reported that her mail was equally divided. “One-half was sad because I had damaged my reputation. The other half was happy because I had damaged my reputation. Not one of my proudest memories.
Although there aren’t a lot of public studies that have compared use of celebrities to sales, there have been some that looked at various measures of ad effectiveness on television. Celebrity ads tended to perform at most equal to the average ad, and often worse.
There are certainly examples of influencers who have driven sales. But how many out of the veritable sea of them? And what happens when one of them ends up with bad personal publicity that is now tied to your brand?
Not to say that influencer marketing is all worthless, and so much will depend on the particular person, the actual connection they have with an audience, and the appropriateness of the context to the brand. But if your marketing team or client show a keen interest in using an influencer as an automatic win, maybe it’s time to go back to a brainstorming session and see what other ideas everyone can come up with instead.