In High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities (NTC, 1997), professors Irving Rein, Philip Kotler and Martin Stoller argue that overexposure of celebrity endorsers may come about:
When consumers get tired of the celebrity; or
When the product and celebrity conflict.
According to the authors, companies need to monitor both factors and identify any long-term endorsements that no longer promote products. The basic challenge in exposure management then comes down to balancing the amount of energy that goes into generating an audience against the rewards that can be expected from that audience.
There are of course many kinds of celebrities. In one counting, there are one-day celebrities — the hero who rescues a boy from drowning; one-week celebrities — the politician immersed in a scandal; one-year celebrities — Time’s “Person of the Year”; one-generation celebrities — Elvis Presley; and finally, legends — Winston Churchill.
Rojek feels that it is primarily the celebrity of the year who must be concerned about overexposure. Noting the large number of rising and falling first-year stars, he feels that the greatest risk of over-exposure probably occurs during the first year of the celebrity’s ascent. “I guess the antidote is to have a clever manager who rations your appearances accordingly,” he says. But others have pointed out that one-year celebrities must also do some soul searching of their own, asking themselves, “Do I want to play this for the long term or do I want to maximize my income while I’m hot?”
According to Professor Rein, who teaches at Northwestern University, “One of the big themes now in terms of brand management is reinvention — looking at a tired brand and asking how it can be freshened.” It’s possible to reinvent a one-year celebrity, says Rein, but it might take speech lessons, walking lessons, music lessons, exposure to a different kind of crowd or audiences, or building a much broader base but maybe without the profit margin. He doubts, however, that very many celebrities would be willing to make these kinds of investments.
“In the case of Britney Spears,” Rein notes, “the audience changed. Spears had a 12, 13 or 14-year-old audience and all of sudden those people are growing up, going to college. She needs to transform herself to meet the exposure needs. I think products have the same issues. There’s a kind of continuum that operates.”
One of the key issues in overexposure is the celebrity’s sector, says Rein. “Which sector you are involved in — whether it’s professions, entertainment, or sports, would be a factor in terms of exposure management,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to maintain high visibility as a lawyer over time than it is as a high visibility actress.… There are different variables to the sector you are in.”
But there’s no guarantee that a celebrity can be reinvented. “Jennifer Lopez played the bad girl for a long time,” says Rein. “Then she kind of redefined herself, and that redefinition has not gone that well. The initial exposure was toxic enough that there was some bleed-through.… Her problem is not overexposure. It’s that she had overexposure of an image that didn’t have a lot of long-term viability. She’s caught in the transformation and working through that.”
Compared to most of us, celebrities tend to be wealthier, have greater opportunities to find attractive partners, and have more social visibility. Up to a point, they also have greater license for stepping beyond the bounds of conventional behavior, and some have argued that we need celebrities precisely for that reason — to help break down antiquated social barriers.
There are certainly cases where moral transgression dovetails nicely with a celebrity’s persona — and at the same time elicits audience approval. Frank Sinatra, for example, was reputed to have been involved with the Mafia during his career, but his fans apparently didn’t care. They accepted him as flawed but authentic.
On the other hand, singer Janet Jackson met with outrage when she appeared demi-topless in a Superbowl half-time show earlier this year. The negative reaction seems to have been in part due to Jackson’s acting out of character, as well as out of venue. The stunt — which might actually have flown on MTV or “Saturday Night Live,” seemed especially inappropriate for a woman approaching middle age who had already achieved respect for her talent. Jackson’s problem would actually seem to be one where the celebrity failed to match the product.
But Jackson’s decision to step beyond the boundaries of conventional behavior was even more surprising if the intent was to reinvent her image. It is, after all, extremely difficult to sustain a career based on outlandish behavior, if only because each successive outrage tends to yield diminished returns. Some therefore suspect that Jackson was attempting to “cash in” because she didn’t have much future left.
In the case of Janet’s brother, Michael Jackson, the glare of negative publicity has posed an even greater threat to his celebrity. Says Rein, “The best thing that Michael Jackson could do is disappear for a while. And then come back in a new form.” Rein calls this the Andes Mountain strategy. “You really say, ‘Whatever I’m going to do here, the channel is poisoned. Fixing it on the run is probably impractical at this point because everything is being filtered in a certain sort of way.’ The best thing to do is get out of the limelight, and do something else — the classic thing being charitable work.” (In the case of Michael Jackson, however, Rein feels, that the problem is not underexposure or overexposure, but rather quality of exposure.)
Entertainers are not the only celebrities who suffer from overexposure. Not even our ultimate celebrities — elected politicians, are immune. As Professor Rojek suggests in his book Celebrity (Reaktion, 2001), the failure of a democracy is most likely to show up in the shortcomings of its elected leaders. Since our leaders are constantly under media scrutiny, it is inevitable that they will sometimes be caught acting out-of-character. In the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, for example, the American public was completely thrown for a loss when a US president admitted to having had an affair with a White House intern. Clearly the product did not match the celebrity.
Rojek has suggested that the allure of celebrities may arise from the gap between theoretical and practical democracy. While democracy in principle offers each of us the same possibility of social ascent — with rise in status supposedly achievable on the basis of merit, many who live in democratic societies nevertheless have the sense that the system is not working. Too often fame seems to come most easily to those who lack a proportional share of merit. But then perhaps the price we must pay for our attachment to celebrities whose popularity rests on their ability to avoid overexposure is the complete separation of fame and merit.