Peter York explains why admen are prepared to pay pounds 400,000 and upwards to get their product identified with the most 'credible' face or voice
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The Independent Culture
THERE'S ALWAYS a residual value in fame. If you're a Sixties or Seventies ex-soap star you could, for instance, be in the frame for a Saga special, or a bit of Lionel Blair/Fluff Freeman- style self-parody in a period spoof. But the big money - the really big money - goes to the stars the agencies have the hots for now: actor-comedians with big current shows who are widely recognised but still reckoned to be credible. Thus Enfield, Whitehouse (whose price has risen vertically since The Fast Show), Atkinson, Dee, Aherne and so on are cleaning up where Fry and Laurie, Mel and Griff coined it in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Actor-comedians are a useful group: often more useful, so advertising agencies reckon, than actor-stars. We've had Burt Reynolds (Dollond & Aitchison), Kim Basinger (Peugeot) and Bob Hoskins (BT); but as a group, it's the comedians who get the long-running engagements now. They're cleverer, of course. They can often write their own lines.

But they have another advantage. Research shows that they're seen to have a quite different, less compromised relationship with the advertiser than star spokesmen do. In the primeval days of American television, stars like Ronald Reagan and Doris Day would do a turn straight to camera on the advertiser's glories; they'd even do personal testimonials of the "my wife swears by it" variety. You hardly ever see that now - especially on British TV. Stars are used more obliquely, parodically, iconically. Research also shows that a more sophisticated audience - and all viewers speak marketing-speak now - simply tends not to believe a straight pitch.

In any case, a straight pitch runs the risk of mismatching brand personalities. People can turn off the product because they can't identify with the star - Not Quite Our Class Darling, or Not Quite Our Fashion Speed. But used obliquely, as a statement, a reference or something of the kind, the agency can cover itself against any kind of research reading.

If you still want a star as your spokesman or spokeswoman, you have to think through the boxes very carefully - Product Compatibility, Audience Identification, Sustainability, Insurance Against Death, Drama or the Sun (Glenn Hoddle vanished promptly from his family-breakfast-cereal gig when the tabloids ran the story about his marriage going south).

Fashion determines which famous faces and voices get used, and in what ways. But the marketplace continues to drive the really top deals higher. Someone big, hot, fresh, exclusive and uncompromised could squeeze pounds 300,000- pounds 400,000 from the UK, and a million for a multi-national or world ad. (My spies tell me that a very big and mature American star is being "actively hawked" on the London market. They're asking not less than a million dollars to take his advertising cherry.)

There's a clear hierarchy in these matters. The best UK money - pounds 250,000- pounds 350,000 - goes to the biggest comedians and the imported US stars. The better-known British actors and the exceptional footballers - Ginola, say, or Lineker - would probably get in the pounds 100,000-pounds 150,000 range for a substantial campaign, while more secondary TV faces and most footballers can expect pounds 50,000-pounds 100,000.

What exactly do advertisers and agencies think they're getting for their money? Let's start with the rational agenda. The most defensible payback is simply attention. On a crowded screen, a famous face or an "is-it- really-X" voice-over creates another reason to watch and listen, a bankable one, supported, apparently, by TV ratings, ticket sales and the other hard measures of star status. It looks like an easy way out if you're insecure about your product or your story.

Then there's association. The right master-casting should give you - or so the argument used to run - the right rub-off. Thus, in more naive days, posh actors selling aspirational menswear, and pop stars selling fizzy drinks. Then, as a function of all that attention and those appropriate associations, you'd score on retention, ie, memorability. The whole thing supposedly leads us inevitably to utterly involuntary purchasing behaviour.

But the covert agenda is rather different. It's something everyone concerned quite inordinately enjoys. Advertisers like meeting stars. (Though Harry Enfield's contemptuous description of creatives - "all of whom consider themselves enormously Talented Men," in a recent Sunday Telegraph piece suggests that the feeling's not always mutual.)

But there's a heartache in their dream offices. It's called Brand Recognition Deficit, and it refers to that familiar situation in which someone remembers a commercial's big star, describes the setting and action perfectly, but absolutely can't remember what brand it was advertising - or worse still, attributes the ad to the competition. For 20 years there's been a secret sadness in admen's recollections of those immortal Seventies vermouth commercials starring Joan Collins and the late Leonard Rossiter. A question for the more mature reader: which brand did you think it was advertising? PY