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Here’s a bit of bad timing

Because I’ve been neck-deep in a consulting gig these last three weeks, I’ve little time for what matters, let alone leafing through all the reading material piling up neck deep in my kitchen. So I just got around this afternoon to leafing through last week’s Forbes magazine and there in living color is reason number 431 why you have to be careful about celebrity endorsements.

Accenture, which has been running some of the stupidest ads in the solar system centered around images of Tiger Woods and tendentious, break-room bobblehead poster headlines about performance or success, chose the week Tiger Woods experimented with driving into trees to run the headline, “The road to high performance isn’t always a paved road.” It’s a jaw-dropper of bad timing and a suitably brain-dead coda to one of the most brain-dead ad campaigns of recent memory. This is an ad that literally has to be seen to be believed:

Tiger Woods Accenture ad road to high performance isn't always a paved road.

As a long-time adman myself, I realize that the Forbes inventory was bought a long time before Tiger decided to try offroading in a neighbor’s front lawn — the ad was probably hot off the presses even as Mrs. Tiger was bebopping all about Mr. Tiger’s head with a nine iron. But, even so, the whole problem with the ad series is that, like so many celebrity-based ads, no-one at the agency or the business really knew what to do with Tiger. So they didn’t really do anything. The ad itself, had Tiger managed to stay on the road, is head-slappingly stupid, which, more typically than not, is what happens when folks try to enlist celebrities to sell everything from hair cream to Viagra.

So let’s take a close look at these Accenture ads and then bop over to Paris Hilton and her burger to see how to do it right when you have no idea how to use a celebrity in an ad.

Sure, Accenture got caught with their pants down this week with their “high performance ain’t a pave road” Tiger Woods ad. But look at the ad again. What’s Tiger doing out there in the fescue anyway? My guess is that he’s looking for a golf ball that is decidedly where it shouldn’t be. Now, I’m not a big golfer. Hell, I’m not a microsopic golfer. The only thing I can manage to do on a golf course is dig holes and send little clods of grass flying hither and yon while the golf ball sits there like an unmovable bird turd. My guess, however, is that the road to high performance in golf does not involve chucking the ball into five foot grass, which more likely is the road to a double bogie rather than performance of any kind.

What, precisely is Accenture trying to say with this ad? That if you hire them as a consultant, they’re going to hook the ball so far off the fairway you can’t even find it?

We have the nice break room anodyne headline about performance not involving a paved road. But if you stop for a second and really consider it, the headline really doesn’t say anything of any value. What, for instance, does it say about Accenture? What does it say about Accenture’s service offerings and value?

One after the other for the past two years, Accenture has been spending millions on ads looking for a message to go with the Tiger picture. And, one after another, Accenture has been putting up ads that say nothing about Accenture (do you know what Accenture does simply by looking at the ad?) and nothing about value. Think about it. Is Accenture trying to tell us that they play really good golf? Or that they’ll teach us Fortune 500 execs how to play really good golf? What, for heaven’s sake, does golf have to do with any of the types of consulting projects these folks get paid $400 an hour for? Now that Accenture (and Mrs. Tiger) have dropped Tiger, maybe they can actually get around to writing ads that have some relevance to their business and their prospects.

If you think this problem has nothing to do with you, as a small business person, think again. Don’t discount using celebrities, even if you’re a small business or start-up. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, exactly one year ago I posted how a scrappy start-up small business, PureSport, scored Michael Phelps as its celebrity spokesperson for nothing by signing him long before the Olympics and paying him equity in the company.

First, Pure Sport signed on Phelps and three other swimmers before he went to the Olympics. In essence, Pure Sport took an entrepreneurial gamble with a potential celebrity. Once Phelps wrapped his fist around his eighth gold medal, signing him on as an endorser became a nigh-impossible task without the ability to write a multi-million dollar check on the spot. Pure Sport got in there when he was at least willing to listen. . . .

Second, they offered . . . equity in the company. They couldn’t write million dollar checks, but they were tying the value of the company to the swimmers’ future performance in Beijing . . . a classic pay-for-performance compensation. . . .

As someone who has been involved with celebrity endorsements, I can tell you from experience that the equity model becomes pretty untenable after the celebrity hires agents who know what they’re doing. Cash does all the talking . . .

So, if you think a celebrity endorsement is out of reach, remember what I keep saying, “Business is about probabilities, never impossibilities.”

PureSport, as an athletic drink, had a good reason to sign on Mr. Phelps. He was, well, an athlete and a pretty darn good one at that. We assume that, like many athletes, he drinks sport drinks (in fact, he drank PureSport conspicuously at the Beijing Olympics). But why did Accenture take on Tiger Woods? The answer: because he was Tiger Woods. And then the ad agency knocked their heads together to come up with some kind of ad campaign. And the best they came up with was “Tiger is really good at golf. Accenture is really good at what they do, too.” Or “Tiger is really good at golf. With Accenture’s help, you can be really good at business.”

Find the worst advertising student in the worst advertising class at the worst school in the country and they’ll probably do better than that.

So what happens when you have a celebrity thrown on your doorstep and you have to fashion an ad campaign around that person? And there’s no way to do it?

Wash the car.

If your celebrity has nothing to do with your product — or even, as in Tiger Woods, there’s no fit whatsoever — that means you’re either stuck with trying to make a bad fit less bad or . . . you can do whatever the hell you want to do.

Which is the road to a successful ad? Doing whatever the hell you want to do.

I was on a radio program (I think it was ABC News, but I don’t really remember) about two months ago and followed some lady who was the head of Moms Against Media or some such organization. As I’m on the phone waiting for my turn, the host and she are complaining about the Carls’ Jr. Paris Hilton ads — you know, the soft porn ad where Paris Hilton is washing a car as if it were a half-ton dildo while eating a hamburger as if it were a big, juicy, dripping . . . hamburger-like thing.

The ad was, at first glance, a pretty dumb way to sell burgers, but it was one of the most phenomenally successful ad campaigns of the last decade. A top ten ad in both creativity and effectiveness. The ad so raised brand awareness (“raised,” get it) and sold so many burgers, that the feminist-enlightened folks at Carl’s Jr. and Mendelsohn/Ziehn followed it up with a similar ad with Padma Lakshmi and later Kim Kardashian (who makes Paris Hilton look like an Oxford don).

During the commercial break, I mentioned to the host that I was well-versed in the background to that ad and knew quite a bit of gossip about it and at some future date we should shoot the shoot on-air about it.

Well, let me give you just a little bit of that background sans all the Paris Hilton gossip.

Many moons ago, I was casual friends with Jordin Mendelsohn, one of the founders and former creative director of the Mendelsohn/Ziehn ad agency here in LA (Jordin left about three months ago). For many years, their big client was Carl’s Jr (still is). In a meeting with the Carl’s, Jr president one day, Jordin just off-handedly suggested using Paris Hilton as a celebrity endorser in a commercial. The president went crazy over the idea and Jordin dutifully went to work.

After weeks of blood, sweat, and tears, Mendelsohn had no idea how to use Paris Hilton as a celebrity endorser of Carls’ Jr. The idea, to say the least, really sucked. So he called up the Carl’s Jr. president and said, “No go, we can’t make this idea work.” To which the president answered, “You suggested Paris Hilton and I like the idea. If it wasn’t going to work, you shouldn’t have suggested it. So get back to work.”

The idea for the commercial came to Mendelsohn while he was out sitting on a park bench despairing that the project wasn’t doable. Eureka! The project isn’t doable. There’s no way to fit Paris Hilton to fast-food burgers. So why even try? Why not just do a commercial having Paris Hilton doing anything you want? The only requirement: she has to eat a burger.

Once you give up on making the celebrity fit the product, then you have a universe of possibilities. And so we have Paris Hilton washing a car and eating a burger. It doesn’t make sense, but it sold millions of dollars of burgers.

I wonder, did Tiger have a burger with Paris, do you think? Strictly Platonic, of course.

As a small business or start-up, celebrities aren’t necessarily out of reach. If they fit, like Michael Phelps and a sports drink, then you win. If they don’t, then you can try to make them fit the product and end up with inane, ineffective ads like Accenture. Or — and this is why I love advertising — you can chuck it all and get as creative as your mind allows.

Now, put down that burger before I have you arrested.

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