In the early 70s, not long after I left the ground-breaking current affairs television programme Gallery, I was approached by an advertising agency who wanted me to front a multi-media campaign for a publication called New Zealand Heritage. I was on the bones of my bum at the time and the appeal of making what I imagined would be a quick killing was considerable. New Zealand Heritage was an educational part-work, a sort of New Zealand encyclopaedia in instalments. The editorial board behind the publication was a Who’s Who of eminent New Zealand scholars. It was an entirely respectable enterprise. I had no experience of the advertising world and no real idea of what you might expect to be paid for fronting a campaign like this. Friends and colleagues, no wiser than me, thought you could go as high as $5,000. Wow! I decided I would settle for nothing less. There was a meeting. The agency outlined what was involved and asked me what I wanted. I had decided to play it super cool and told them to make me an offer. “$5,000,” they said.
I couldn’t believe it. We were already at my asking price and I’d barely spoken a word. I’m not sure what came over me, but I suddenly heard myself saying, “I won’t take a penny less than $8,000.” They agreed. I later learnt that if I’d said $25,000 they would have agreed to that as well. And possibly more. What I had to sell was a reputation for integrity that I’d built up over the previous two years as “a fearless interrogator” of the powerful. It was worth more than I’d understood. Some months later the press, radio and TV ads began to appear. The campaign was a huge success and must have made a fortune for the publishers and a tidy sum for the advertising agency. To my knowledge there was no significant criticism of the publication.
This looks like the story of a respected television personality lending his name to a product without any loss of respect or reputation. But I soon learnt that this was not the case. Total strangers started to stop me in the street. Whereas in the past they would have been likely to compliment me on getting stuck into the politicians, they now expressed disappointment in me. I had sullied my reputation, let the side down, “sold out”. My mana was, if not gone, greatly reduced. It made no difference at all that there was nothing wrong with the product I’d lent my name to or indeed that a whole generation of parents and children probably learnt a lot from it. The public approached the world of advertising with deep-seated suspicion. And that suspicion extended to any public figure who accepted payment to promote a product. A huckster was a huckster by any other name.
I was reminded of this experience by the recent debate over Mike King’s endorsement, then excoriation of the New Zealand pork industry. I’m not interested in revisiting the arguments. If King was guilty of anything, it seemed to me, it was of not doing his homework before agreeing to front the campaign. You need to make sure that the product is …well … kosher. But it occurred to me that there is something which we’ll call “Brian’s Law of Celebrity Endorsement”. It is that the damage done to a public figure by product endorsement will be in direct proportion to that public figure’s standing in society or reputation for honesty and integrity. Brian’s Law of Celebrity Endorsement means that the less you have to lose in terms of reputation, the less you will lose. While we may like people in the entertainment industry, for example, we tend not to hold them in particularly high regard. So “celebrities” can get away with endorsing products without our thinking any, or at least much less of them. But even within the entertainment industry there is a hierarchy of respectability. Eyebrows were raised around the world when, in the late 70s, Sir Laurence Olivier fronted a television campaign for Polaroid cameras. The world’s most famous Shakespearean actor! A knight of the realm no less! What was he thinking?
He was thinking of the dosh.
The closest we would come in New Zealand would probably be Judy Bailey, who has wisely steered clear of product endorsement. The idea of the ‘mother of the nation’ flogging anything on telly is simply unthinkable. Her co-presenter Richard Long may now wish he had followed her example. I have no doubt that he did his homework before signing for Hanover Finance, but his newsreader’s reputation for honesty and objectivity will have been sullied long before the company’s collapse. Not so Philip Sherry and Dougal Stevenson. Brian’s Law of Celebrity Endorsement also states that sending yourself up in a commercial provides you with a degree of immunity from the odium that normally attaches to product endorsement. Sportspeople seem to enjoy a similar immunity which may reflect the view that product endorsement is a legitimate source of income for people whose career span is inherently short. But hazards remain. All Black legend Colin Meads lent his name to Provincial Finance which left investors facing losses of $300 million. “You do it in good faith,” he said. “Because it was Colin Meads people put their money into the company… It didn’t make me feel good at all.” He still got his retrospective knighthood, perhaps giving him a double reason not to venture into the world of product endorsement again.
Actors can also make a decent living flogging products, seemingly without undue harm to their reputations. Their immunity may stem from the fact that we know them primarily through the roles they play, rather than as themselves. Is that Robyn Malcolm or Cheryl West telling us that Eau de Henderson Creek will knock the fellows dead? And what of Mike King? I’ve met and interviewed him more than once – about comedy and about his battle with depression. I both like and admire him. We can add funny men to the list of those seemingly immune to the public odium which attaches to product endorsement. Like actors they are insulated by having a double and often schizophrenic persona – the joker and the person telling the jokes. But Mike illustrates another aspect of Brian’s Law of Celebrity Endorsement: loss of reputation and credibility increases exponentially with each additional product you lend your name to. Stick to one product and we may not only believe you, but grow to love you. (Think the Briscoes lady!) Start putting yourself about and the suspicion grows that you can’t really have been committed to any of the products you advertised before. A promiscuous product endorser is not to be trusted. Since New Zealand Heritage I’ve made two ads. The first was for a small electronics retailer in Wellington who went bust shortly afterwards. My pulling power had obviously diminished since the early 70s.
While I was hosting Radio New Zealand’s Top of the Morning show, I was approached by an advertising agency asking me to endorse a financial product. They were offering a very considerable sum of money. I declined. They doubled the offer. We were talking really big bickies now and, forgetting my previous experience, I accepted the offer. But worry kept me awake at night and I pulled out before signing the contract. Not long after that I was sacked by Sharon Crosbie and the agency, seeing an opportunity, renewed their offer. I said I’d do the commercial if they doubled the sum. We were now talking mega bickies. They agreed and we made the commercial. But before it showed the project was abandoned. I had fulfilled my side of the contract and still got paid – for a commercial which no-one ever saw. (I know, you hate me.) This is one of only two types of commercial you should agree to front. The other is for some worthwhile charity. You won’t get paid, but you will not merely preserve your reputation but enhance it. More importantly, you’ll sleep like an innocent babe. Meanwhile, if I were running an advertising agency I’d have my old friend Kevin Milne right at the top of my list of prospective product endorsers – consumer champion, impeccable credentials, high credibility, nice bloke, common touch. But if you do get the call, Kev, talk to me first. It isn’t worth it.