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MKTG Insights: When Celebrity Sponsorship Gets Spoofed

MKTG Insights: When Celebrity Sponsorship Gets Spoofed

It was P.T. Barnum - the founder of the Ringling Bros. Circus - who is often accredited with the phrase "all publicity is good publicity."

While that sentiment may have been appropriate for Barnum's circus business in the 1800s, it is likely that modern-day corporate sponsorship professionals would have a more nuanced opinion on the matter. Very few brands are likely to list "achieve any publicity" as a core sponsorship objective. However, in the case of celebrity endorsement, unexpected attention can often become a large part of the public's reaction. In the world of sponsorship, this unexpected reaction has increasingly materialized in parodies and spoofs - the comedic reimaginings of brand/endorser relationships.

From Saturday Night Live to Late Night TV Hosts - mock celebrity commercials are a staple in today's comedy landscape. With almost 20% of advertisements featuring celebrity endorsers, and that number is over twice as high in certain foreign markets, those who make their living mocking celebrities are constantly being provided with new material. For corporate sponsors who invest significantly for the right to leverage celebrity ambassadors, parodies have both positive and negative strategic implications. MKTG analyzes the impact of spoofs on sponsorship strategy.

Is Imitation the Greatest Form of Flattery? Or Are Spoofs A Distraction from Strategy?

Understanding the impact of endorsement parodies on the brand's of corporate sponsors hinges on understanding their objectives and where they are with respect to a defined brand narrative. For sponsors who are primarily leveraging endorsement for awareness purposes, parodies and spoofs bring their executions to life on new platforms and in front of new audiences. Conversely, parodies may overshadow the overarching brand narrative or desired messaging that the corporate sponsor was seeking to achieve.

Case Studies: Sponsorship Spoofs

Lincoln - Matthew McConaughey:

Last year Lincoln, the Ford luxury brand, tapped Matthew McConaughey to be the new face of the brand as part of two-year deal. The deal was McConaughey’s first major endorsement deal and was a reflection of his increased relevance in Hollywood. The original commercial shows McConaughey driving in a new Lincoln MKZ talking to himself in a slow, dramatic voiceover, serving up lines like "I've been driving a Lincoln since long before anybody paid me to drive one". SNL, Ellen DeGeneres, and even South Park parodied the spot. According to the brand, the SNL skit "led to an increase of more than 100% in the brand's visibility online via mobile devices and across social media the night and day after the episode aired."

Calvin Klein - Justin Bieber

Earlier this month, Calvin Klein announced an endorsement agreement with pop icon Justin Bieber. The deal was announced in the wake of a challenging year for Bieber in which the singer was involved in multiple scandals that had a negative impact on his personal brand. Already a target for comedians, the recent campaign, which features a shirtless, drumming Bieber inspired a quick-response parody from SNL starring impressionist Kate McKinnon that paints Bieber in a less than flattering light.

Chanel 5 - Brad Pitt Endorsement:

Brad Pitt appeared in a brand spot for Chanel 5 in 2012, becoming the first male to represent the brand. The spot was instantly recognized for its bizarre script and tone,  an unusual role the Hollywood A-lister. Saturday Night Live star Taram Killam appeared in four different mock commercials that achieved viral success. In the above clip, Pitt and Chanel are spoofed by Conan O'Brien.

Chrysler - Clint Eastwood Spoof:

Chrysler leveraged Clint Eastwood for their 2012 Super Bowl Commercial "Halftime in America". The spot aired during halftime of Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, drawing a parable between the game plans being drawn up by the coaching staff of the competing Super Bowl teams,  the millions of Americans making plans for a financial comeback after an economic downturn, and the comeback that Chrysler had made after the financial crisis. The grim and serious tone of the spot was mocked by a suite of Late Night TV hosts and Saturday Night Live, both of whom reimagined the spot as an advertisement for products that were not quite as serious (Twizzlers, Little Caeser's Pizza, etc.)

Parodies Of The Future:

With this year's Super Bowl around the corner, a number of corporate sponsors will be leveraging celebrity endorsers in their Super Bowl commercials. Whether it is the frequently parodied Kim Kardashian's appearance for T-Mobile (above), or Snickers' "You Are Not Yourself When You're Hungry" spot leveraging multiple celebrity endorsers, comedians will be waiting in the wings for spoofable content.

As for corporate sponsors, you cannot plan or anticipate when parodies will occur. There is no market research test to anticipate whether your brand will be mocked on The Tonight Show or on Weekend Update. However, as smart brands build out usage strategies and activation themes for celebrity endorsers, the same tried and true strategic principles should govern decision-making:

1. Take Spoofs With a Grain of Salt: The same way that no single advertisement can elevate a strategy, no single spoof can crumble it. Corporate sponsors should not view parodies as reasons to abandon an otherwise tight strategy. That being said, parodies present a rare opportunity to increase share of voice and dominate social chatter for a defined period in-market.

2. Understand Your Brand Voice: There is no one-size-fits-all approach for sponsors in deciding whether or not to react to conversation about their brand. For certain brands, a self-deprecating approach that humanizes the brand will make sense. For conservative brands, there is merit to silence.

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