Do celebrities really make your ads more effective?

Many broadcast advertisers, from local merchants to national brands, subscribe to something called the Pied Piper Principle. This says that if you put a celebrity into your commercials, all or most of their fans, like the children of Hamelin, will mindlessly follow him or her to the cash register. So when their ads have nothing to say, they have a celebrity say it.

Brand-new advertising audience research totally undermines that premise.

More expensive, less effective

As a headline from Advertising Age put it, celebrities in advertising are almost always a big waste of money.

They waste money in two ways.

First, whether it’s a local radio personality, a national radio celebrity like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck; or a big-time television, movie or sports personality, you’re going to have to pay extra in talent fees — a few hundred extra for the local radio voice, a few thousand extra for a national radio personality, millions more for a real, big-time star.

According to Freedom of Information Act documents released only last week to ESPN, the US Postal Service put some 31.9 million of your tax dollars to work sponsoring Lance Armstrong’s cycling team from 2001 to 2004.

In 1999, back in the day when Government Motors was General Motors, its Buick division signed Tiger Woods to a 10-year contract, the last five years of which paid him $40 million ($8 million per year).

And second, national television audience research shows that putting celebrities in commercials seriously lowers their effectiveness.

The Pied Piper is Dead

Advertising audience research firm Ace Metrix tested every commercial nationally televised thoughout the first 11 months of 2010. The findings not only kill the Pied Piper Principle, but put a nail in its coffin.

While non-celebrity commercials, as a group, averaged 8% above the Ace Score norms for attention, persuasiveness, comphrehension, likeability and other characteristics, celebrity commercials, as a group, averaged 1.4% below. Fewer than one out of eight celebrity ads scored as much as 10% above norm, while one in five scored in negative territory.

Tiger Woods, for Nike, was 30% below norm. Lance Armstrong for Radio Shack was minus 28%. Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Nationwide Auto Insurance was at negative 27%. And though Donald Trump for Macy’s was no bargain, he, too, was in the basement with minus 24%. So it’s not just Tiger’s marital problems that were the problem.

Consumers aren’t sheep

Celebrities are no longer as influential as they were even five years ago, and that’s because their audience has wised up. Today’s consumers, whom Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll describes as “informed, time-compressed, and difficult to impress,” are “more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network than a weak celebrity connection.” They’re “only influenced by ads that are relevant and provide information,” he concludes, and “don’t want to have products pushed at them, even from a celebrity.”

In all fairness, not all celebrity ads are automatically losers. What makes the difference is whether the celebrity has any logical connection with the product or service that he or she is being paid to push — and most don’t.

Information and ideas trump celebrities

But when advertisers put less of their money into commercials, with creatively executed relevant informartion about how the product satisfies audience wants and needs, instead of meaningless celebrities, the scores go through the roof. In the same study that showed celebrity spots tanking, Hewlett Packard’s simple but clear and engaging “Happy Baby” commercial scored more than 110 points above the tech category norm — using only union-scale actors.

The bottom line is, whenever you run advertising, you do better by investing in what your message says than in who’s going to say it.