Take Harry Enfield, riding high on the success of his BBC1 series Harry Enfield and Chums. To date, he has appeared in ad campaigns for Hula Hoops, Worthington's bitter, Sekonda watches, British Gas, Mercury, Skol, Dime bars and Fab ice-cream, not to mention numerous voice-overs. His latest commercial, for Pillsbury Toaster Pockets, a new flaky pastry snack, broke last week. In it, Enfield appears as Kevin the Teenager, a creation from his current television series. Oh, and he worked on the script and directed the commercial, too.
Then there are Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones who have appeared in, scripted and directed numerous radio ads and television commercials through their own production company. Smith currently appears in the Visa Delta Card television campaign which he also directed and co-wrote. Meanwhile, Rowan Atkinson has a long-running relationship with Barclaycard. Although he does not direct the ads (that is left to his old friend and Blackadder collaborator John Lloyd) he does have a creative veto.
And small wonder. Agencies are turning increasingly to television personalities, fuelled in part by the vogue for ads that look like television programmes. There is the Surf campaign featuring Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson of Birds of a Feather. Pepsi recently re-made part of The Word featuring Terry Christian and Dani Behr. Now, BT has rounded up a fistful of ex- EastEnders headed by Letitia Dean, who used to play Sharon.
What lengths advertisers will go to for a dash of stardust! But there is another reason for the trend. "More stars are being used in British ads and they're being used for their creative skills," says Billy Mawhinney, creative director of Ammirati Puris Lintas, the agency responsible for Surf and the Flora campaign starring Richard Wilson, of One Foot in the Grave fame. "In the past, stars took good direction. Today, they can contribute in a range of different ways. Harry Enfield, for example, is a wonderful writer - you'd be a mug not to ask him what he thought of the script."
Enfield worked with the advertising agency Lowe Howard Spink to refine the Pillsbury script. The ad was made by Tiger Aspect, the production company which makes Harry Enfield and Chums. But above all, his participation was relevant to the product, Tim Lindsay, LHS managing director, insists. "The Kevin character makes people sit up and take notice and it very precisely characterises the people who are target consumers of this product, without being patronising."
Some sort of script involvement is becoming increasingly common for stars involved in commercials production, Lindsay adds. "Not because agency creative departments are lacking, but because stars are becoming more interested in taking control of their own destiny and leaving less in the hands of managers and agents." This is already happening in other areas of television entertainment where talent is a scarce commodity and its cost is rocketing.
Big-name television presenters routinely achieve six-and seven-figure deals and increasingly dictate that their own production company produce the shows they present. Clive James and Chris Evans now work exclusively through their own production companies - Watchmaker Productions and Ginger Productions respectively. Meanwhile, television actors including Ian McShane, Jimmy Nail, Robson Green and Jerome Flynn have followed the example of the Hollywood stars Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins and Sharon Stone by forming their own production companies.
According to Viv Walsh, an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, "stars are getting more clever. Often, we like to take the mickey out of them in ads. Take the Steve Davis commercial for Volkswagen where he was repeatedly called boring. But in fact by choosing to do this ad, he rose in the public's esteem, for being a good sport. A similar effect has been achieved by Nicholas Parsons and Bob Monkhouse."
But control goes beyond the benefits of manipulating a celebrity's image. "People are now very conscious of their market value and know as soon as they start doing ads it will be affected. Their aim is to ensure their market value is not immediately diminished," Lindsay adds. The advantage to the advertiser is a fast-forward effect. "It means the ad enters the bloodstream quicker," Mawhinney explains. "Harry Enfield has at least a series to establish a new character. Create one from scratch for an ad and you have 30 seconds."
Enfield can exploit his television characters for advertising because he owns the intellectual property. Ownership, however, is not always clear- cut. BT's EastEnders ad resulted in a dispute with the BBC which claimed the ad contravened its copyright, despite the ad making no direct reference to the television series or its characters. As a result, BT's advertising agency, AMV.BBDO, had to pay compensation to the BBC.
Despite the risks, however, star power can benefit a new campaign. The cautious Nineties advertiser draws comfort from familiarity, although at a price. Current market rates for B-list "names" start at between pounds 50,000 and pounds 100,000 for appearing in a single ad broadcast over a year. (That is not to mention the standard director's fee of pounds 50,000-plus).
Some may insist that advertising offers a new means of self-expression; other are more pragmatic. Bob Hoskins told an interviewer recently that he could think of half-a-million reasons for doing the BT television adverts - "all of them with the Queen's head on them". Industry sources suggest Billy Connolly will earn pounds 500,000 for his Goldfish campaign for British Gas. Meanwhile, the Duchess of York picked up pounds 500,000 for a one-off commercial for Ocean Spray, a US cranberry juice.
Others, however, see it as a way of raising their profile when their popularity is on the wane, Walsh says. Which is one reason why he has recently been discussing the merits of using the former Radio 1 DJ Chris Evans in a new campaign. Will Evans do it? Watch this spacen