Tuesday, October 26News That Matters

The Triumph of the Celebrity Endorsement

This has all helped to usher in a golden age of celebrity branding. Today you can wear Kim Kardashian shapewear under Nicole Richie sleepwear on a Rita Ora duvet tossed with an Ellen DeGeneres pillow. You can raise your child on Jennifer Garner organic baby food and Jessica Alba organic cotton wipes and organic diapers with jaunty prints designed by Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. You can shake up some drinks with Drake champagne, Chainsmokers tequila, Post Malone rosé and cocktail mixers courtesy of Jax Taylor and Lance Bass, and then — in select jurisdictions — roll Snoop Dogg cannabis in Wiz Khalifa papers and ash into a receptacle lovingly designed by Seth Rogen. And that’s not even counting the class of social media personalities, like Addison Rae, who have appeared to leap effortlessly from executing 15-second TikTok dance routines to alchemizing fully articulated makeup lines.

Zeta-Jones’s new line of coffees reminded me of the branding saga that embroiled a former co-star, George Clooney, in the early 2000s. Clooney appeared in commercials for Nespresso, a Nestle capsule-based espresso and coffee machine, that — like many campaigns celebrities perceive as potentially embarrassing — aired exclusively abroad. Thanks to the wonders of streaming online video, American viewers caught sight of the ads, and Clooney was exposed as a shifty operator: He became the movie star who thought he was too good for the corporate coffee machine with delusions of grandeur. At press events, Clooney was framed as a sellout and a hypocrite, and he started defensively announcing that his Nespresso money funded a satellite used to surveil a Sudanese war criminal.

Clooney thought he could rehab his image by spending his ad money on something virtuous, but his real reputational problem lied in his relationship to how he had generated the cash. When Clooney joined his friend Rande Gerber in developing a tequila, Casamigos, then sold it in a billion-dollar deal, he was suddenly game to chat about it, jauntily pronouncing “Jalisco” in interviews and bragging about how many shots he’d downed with his pal to achieve the smoothest pour. The backlash never arrived. (In 2015, Clooney emerged from the Nespresso closet, too, signing on to rep the brand in North America.)

Beneath these high-wattage deals, a certain hokeyness endures. TalkShopLive, Zeta-Jones’s e-commerce platform of choice, is the kind of website that will present a photo of a suspiciously white-toothed person, label it “Ken Lindner” and just assume that a) you know who that is and b) you might be moved to buy something from him. (Google advises: “Mario Lopez’s Longtime Agent.”) And yet since its 2018 inception, legitimate stars with product to move — like the memoir-slingers Matthew McConaughey and Dolly Parton — have peacefully coexisted with influencers calling themselves things like Nurse Georgie and the Gentlemen of Crypto. Suggesting that there is some cynical calculation to these kinds of gambits is seen as an unsophisticated, even offensive, analysis. “I didn’t ‘sell out’ by making my dreams come true,” Chrissy Teigen said on Twitter last year when her honor was impugned over Cravings, her range of cookbooks and cookware synced with a branded Instagram account featuring cheese appreciation posts and a meme of Hulk Hogan wrestling a sourdough loaf. The internet rallied to Teigen’s defense.

The consumerist mode of celebrity performance has grown more acceptable as it’s become increasingly clear that Hollywood work is not always so enviable, especially for women. Framing the movie business as an artistic calling is the thing that now feels false. Part of the appeal of a figure like Teigen is her unapologetic posture toward her work. She is not abashedly cashing in on the excess value created by her high-minded art; she is just trying very hard to sell things.

Still, this hand can be overplayed. This month, Teigen released a line of household cleaning products with the Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner, and the backlash to their cringey launch videos was so abrupt that Teigen nuked her Twitter account, calling its users “mean.” There was, perhaps, a miscalculation in the video’s satirical style: In poking fun at the whole genre of celebrity branding, she presented herself as uncharacteristically insincere.