Focus: Show Over! Are we finally sick of celebs?

They were gods, now they are pests. They could have sold us anything, now they are used to sell anything. Katy Guest on the growing evidence that we are falling out of love with the famous
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The Independent Online

It used to be so simple: a superstar allowed their gorgeous face to be put on a product and the world said, "That's nice, I'll buy one." Then people who were not quite so famous started advertising things. Then people who were not very famous at all did the same. Still, the products flew off the shelves and the mantra was true: celebrity (however flaky) sells.

It used to be so simple: a superstar allowed their gorgeous face to be put on a product and the world said, "That's nice, I'll buy one." Then people who were not quite so famous started advertising things. Then people who were not very famous at all did the same. Still, the products flew off the shelves and the mantra was true: celebrity (however flaky) sells.

But not any more. We have had enough. The automatic association between a famous face and a successful product is over. Shoppers are bored with endorsement and actually finding fame a turn-off when it comes to buying a fish slice or a pair of jeans.

Enough, said British consumers last week. The market research company Mintel found 67 per cent of shoppers "unconvinced" or "uninterested" by celebrity chef ranges. Only 8 per cent said they would actually buy a celebrity brand - even if the celeb was someone they "admire or trust". Three out of five adults are "bored with celebrities", the survey found, and a further one in five is "celebrity resistant".

Hang on, you might say, celebs are everywhere. That is true: going to the shops is like being trapped on the set of a terrifying daytime TV show. Jamie's herbs rub up against Loyd's sauces and Nigella's mixing bowls in the supermarket, Rosemary Conley's cheerful face stares out from a "fat monitor" (whatever that is), and on the high street every blonde who ever dated an ageing rock star is introducing her own range of lingerie. The bewilderingly enduring Linda Barker insists she knows what sofa (and stereo, and fridge) is best for us.

The ubiquity is the problem. They used to be gods, now they're pests. Celebrity expanded and expanded but now it is imploding. It may take a while for the effects to be felt, but advertising agencies are paid to read the signs on the wall and they are panicking because you can't just slap on a famous face and watch the tills ring any more.

Last week's survey came as George Michael suggested he was retiring from being famous because "the business of media and celebrity" was "unbearable". In his music and image, Michael has carefully surfed the Zeitgeist for more than 20 years, and he is being smart again in getting out now. Our former reverence for stars is turning to boredom, disgust and open hatred. This is best demonstrated by the contrast between the last series of Celebrity Big Brother and the first, in 2001, which was a cuddlefest. Jack Dee missed his children, won sympathy and the title. But last time round, the house was stocked with a coven of self-destructive and unsympathetic pseudo-celebs we didn't even love to hate. The viewing figures for this modern equivalent of a public hanging were 4.2 million - down almost a million on the previous series. Meanwhile, Closer, the celebrity magazine that appears to hate celebs, has been a great success, selling 480,187 copies a week only two years after its launch. It outsells its fawning, old-fashioned cousin Hello! by miles, not least by printing embarrassing pictures of stars with spots and cellulite.

Gone are the days when a famous name could expect adulation to greet her every sneeze. Minnie Driver, actress-turned-chanteuse, launched her first album to a chorus of boos from the critics. It is not in the charts. Tom Weldon, the publisher of a disastrous autobiography by Natalie and Nicole Appleton, admitted: "I didn't realise how much people didn't like them. We lost a considerable sum of money on that." Publishers had known the tide was turning since Anthea Turner's autobiography, Fools Rush In, reportedly sold only 451 copies in the first week.

The backlash comes as no surprise to Ben Carter, the news editor of the advertising industry bible, Marketing magazine. "The whole meaning of celebrity has changed in the past few years because of reality TV. Anyone can now go from being a nobody to endorsing a product and getting paid loads for it, and people are getting bored with that. I think advertisers are going to become a lot more choosy."

Sharon Osbourne has just become the face of Asda supermarkets for £7m, but Mintel research shows that a growing number of people think celebs sign such deals simply for the money. That reduces the impact of the ads. There are far more endorsements than there were five years ago but the proportion of shoppers buying them has not gone up. "Our research shows a high level of apathy, disinterest and even scepticism towards these products," says Claire Hatcher, a senior market analyst.

The occasional backlash is nothing new, of course. Half a century ago, the film actress Ethel Barrymore spread herself languorously across a billboard ad for air conditioning and revealed: "Nothing cools me off like a Carrier". Her younger brother John, grandfather of a current Hollywood star, Drew Barrymore, said: "She is prostituting the family art."

But now that there are far more products than really famous people, advertisers make some pretty embarrassing choices. Woolworths bosses were left as red as their logo when the comedian Paul Kaye announced he felt a right four-letter word for starring in their ads. And when internet users can log on to the shameless plugs that stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jennifer Aniston film for Japanese eyes only, it is hard to take seriously the ones they actually want their compatriots to see.

It's now not unusual for celebrities to have a negative impact on an advertising campaign, says Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist who has studied our stormy relationship with fame. "The most infamous was Billy Connolly with the National Lottery. I believe Camelot's sales have steadily increased since that stopped."

Advertising agencies thought they could get round the growing disenchantment by recruiting real people and making them stars. Howard Brown, a clerk from the Sheldon branch of the Halifax, increased the building society's market share considerably when he was chosen to sing an adapted version of "Sex Bomb" by Tom Jones in an ad, inspiring imitations from companies like B&Q. But when Howard started to become a celebrity, familiar problems emerged. A tabloid interview implied he was a prima donna, and customers in the Midlands were horrified when the ads featured a cartoon Howard, dubbing his Birmingham accent in Cockney. Howard is now back, launching a single and a brand-new Halifax commercial tonight.

Nigel Markwick, senior consultant at the global brand consultancy Wolff Olins, believes Howard Syndrome is partly to blame for the death throes of celebrity. "The term is abused," he says. "There are still some powerful, iconic celebrities out there; the David Beckhams of this world make people stop and listen. But all of us have thousands of images thrown at us each day. B-, C- and Z-list celebrities just don't capture our attention." He also believes consumers are getting more sophisticated. "We've all got very clever at filtering messages out. In future, trying to be lazy and slapping some unknown celebrity on a product is just not going to work."

The advertising guru Peter York agrees. "People feel and act very differently towards celebrities now from when they were sitting in the cinema in the Thirties watching gods," he points out. "Once upon a time there were real stars. Then there were the general-purpose celebrities. Now there's a ragbag of people who debase the coinage. When you've got minor celebrities being sick on camera [as in the graphic Extreme Celebrity Detox last week], people are going to think, 'Well, if that's celebrity, I can do that.'"

That is the problem, says Professor Griffiths. "We've become engorged with celebrity this and celebrity that. If we're not at saturation point now, we're certainly near it. Maybe celebrity reality TV programmes do make us realise that these people are just people. And if they are, why would we respect a product just because they tell us to?"

Could the advertising men live in a world without Britney?

How would they sell us huge brands like Pepsi without a famous face? Tim Luckhurst finds out

Did a picture of Britney Spears in glitter-dusted gladiator gear make you thirst for a certain vegetable-extract fizzy drink? Did David Beckham in his Police sunglasses make your life feel unliveable without the same shades? Does Michael Winner telling that woman to "calm down, dear" make you want to sign up to Esure?

If the answer is no, then how do you think the advertisers feel? They spent tens of millions signing up the three stars (well, two and Michael Winner) to sell their wares. Now the research suggests it was money wasted - although Pepsi might already have wondered what their reported $75m (£40m) fee was worth when they saw pictures of Britney's boyfriend buying cans of rival Coke. Beckham as a brand has been greatly devalued since he signed up to Police for £1m a year, and Winner's creepy car insurance ads were voted the most irritating of last year.

But if the big spenders are having second thoughts, what are the alternatives? We asked advertising experts if it would be possible to launch a successful campaign for the same products using the same budgets but with no celebrities. "You're joking," they said, almost unanimously. "We don't have ideas for free." We were, of course, asking them to do in a moment what they would take months (and charge lots) to do for clients. Some were astonished and a little fearful at the idea of selling things without the comfort blanket of celebrity.

David Reid, managing director of the Edinburgh communications agency 1576, was braver. He has used a celebrity in only one campaign in the past 18 years. "These days," he says, "a celeb is someone who has been in the Big Brother house for a week."

So how could Pepsi do without Britney? "Is there something Pepsi has that Coke doesn't? The aim should be to create a story behind the brand. Everyone perceives Coke as the real thing, but with that come corporate behemoth assumptions that a good campaign might be able to challenge. I would try to make Pepsi more humorous, more challenging, a bit more urban: a use-oriented campaign instead of paying pop stars huge sums of money to prance about."

If 1576 won the contract to advertise Police sunglasses, Mr Reid would not start by hiring David Beckham (although it could be argued that the original act of doing so raised the company profile to a previously undreamt-of level). "Were the sunglasses designed by a particular designer? Is there a unique selling point there? I would look at the quality of the manufacturing and the materials used. With a bit of humour it should be possible to touch on the appeal wearing these glasses will bring you."

So what about Winner? His ads are almost anti-celebrity, as if Esure caught the mood shift early. "The ads are almost cultishly bad," says Mr Reid. "But my kids will go about imitating them even though they don't know who he is. So it works."