More than just a pretty face

Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas can sell millions of tickets at the box office. No wonder advertisers want them to shift sunglasses, too. Josh Sims looks at the next generation of poster boys

The man in the ad for the latest Hugo Boss fragrance is not your usual model. There is something familiar, but not overly so, about him. He is neither a world-famous star, nor an anonymous hunk. Then the penny drops: it's the up-and-coming actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He doesn't voice his approval of the product, and, in this instance at least, he can't even be seen to be wearing it. But there he is, with a two-year contract to be a "face".

"Just 10 years ago, there were virtually no male fashion or grooming ads. But now there's such an increasing noise around the men's markets that they're facing the same challenge that women's brands have faced for years: how to cut through the clutter," says Thomas Burkhardt, the marketing director of Hugo Fragrances. "In the women's market there are supermodels and they have a brand equity in their own right: people recognise them and want to know about them. But there's no equivalent with men. And that presents a problem."

The solution, it seems, has been to look to stage and screen for an actors-turned-models (ATMs). There's Gabriel Byrne in an ad for CP Company; Ioan Gruffudd for Burberry's London fragrance; Antonio Banderas for Police sunglasses; Brad Pitt for Tag Heuer. When it comes to clothes, Adrien Brody has modelled for Zegna, Anthony Minghella for Gieves & Hawkes (because even a director is close enough), and Rhys Meyers for Versace. They might seem like a diverse bunch, but each has been carefully selected to match the brands that he represents.

What's in it for the actor may seem obvious: a nice pay packet - though still probably peanuts compared with payment for a Hollywood acting job. Indeed, according to Warren Berger, author of Advertising Today: "It is almost another kind of performance, a way of extending their own brand. It's not about the money. If it was that, they'd do advertising jobs for McDonald's. It's about the chance to be associated with a particular audience."

But what's in it for the company? With celebrity culture at saturation point, can interest still be sparked by seeing a famous face set next to a logo? Look again at the choice of actor, however, and a pattern starts to emerge. None is a style icon, and with the exception of Pitt, they're not megastars. The latter tend to sign mega-deals for more unlikely products: George Clooney, who according to one recent study is the single most sought-after actor for commercial work, has worked with Belstaff in Italy, but also with the coffee company Nespresso; Anthony Hopkins has appeared in ads for Honda; Sean Connery for Japanese whisky; Robert De Niro for American Express. In fashion advertising, however, the men chosen are either more left-field character actors, or rising stars, or both.

"You need the right partners in the process to inform you as to who's hot and who's not because the fit is essential, not least the way that person is regarded in his career, the way he handles himself in his private life," says Burkhardt. "You need someone irreverent, creative and individual. But if their career is on the rise, then your brand can rise with it."

The balance is crucial: to put Hollywood and fashion names side by side is to invite a power struggle between two image-driven brands. And, in line with their higher pay, male actors are usually the most powerful brands in cinema. It's all about how successfully the values the actor stands for can be transferred to the product he is representing. According to a study by US analysts Marketing Management Analytics, the return on a successful campaign with an ATM is four times what it would have been using a model. But the celebrity can also add no value at all. A celebrity's popularity is always subject to unpredictable cycles.

Or, as Savina Rivetti, of CP Company, puts it: "There's generally an advantage in fashion marketing of using a famous face over a model, especially one that's lived a bit. Men respond to that. But Gabriel Byrne is not a movie star. He's more niche, and so is our brand. Commercially, it would work to have a more famous face, assuming we could afford it, but it wouldn't necessarily be right for us."

Warren Berger explains further: "Most men's brands want to be regarded as cool rather than fashionable, and need an actor to reflect that. It's about going against the mainstream - a Tom Cruise-type would be more mainstream. Advertising aimed at men tends to require more grit about it because male consumers want to think of themselves as rule-breakers, so using edgier, more 'dangerous' actors reflects that."

Not just dangerous, but free-spirited. According to Phil Teer, a senior planner at the London advertising agency St Luke's, the choice of certain male actors reflects a general uncertainty about male identity in Western society at the moment, one reason why people in his business, he concedes, are always trying to brand men as New Lads, New Men, Metrosexuals and the like. "It's curious that actors, sportsmen or even pop stars - who have achieved something in the way male models usually haven't - are held up as role models by teenagers. Why? It's because they're not your classic celebs. They're free of the 40-hour-week corporate career. They're not your classic celebs. They're still 'making it', and they represent an attractive kind of independence."

Jean-Marc Lacave, head of the watch and jewellery division of LVMH, owner of Tag Heuer, agrees. "Using an actor becomes less effective the older the customer gets, because the customer has a better idea of who he is." So why has Tag gone for Brad Pitt? "Hollywood is still the best expression of glamour for us, and Brad Pitt represents success and strength - aspects that are appealing to a male audience. Signing Brad Pitt costs more than a model - a lot more. But using a celebrity doesn't always work. There's always the risk you'll end up using a guy just because he's good-looking and well-known. That's short-term thinking. On the other hand, with a model you're just showing a good-looking guy with a watch. And that lacks meaning."

However, although a fifth of ads in the US now feature celebrities - twice as many as a decade ago - not everyone in the business is convinced using them works. A recent survey revealed that, although 60 per cent of Japanese interviewees said that celebrity endorsement added value to their perception of a product, 79 per cent of British and American consumers claimed it had no effect.

It is a particularly tricky area for luxury-goods brands. A new survey by the Luxury Institute in the US found that only 30 per cent of a sample group of affluent Americans admitted to being influenced by celebrity in their choice of fashion brands. Some 38 per cent were dissuaded because they felt celebrity endorsement now only belongs with mass-market labels. And the problem mainly stems from media-savvy scepticism: 55 per cent are put off because they can't believe that the celebrity uses the product. Does Brad wear a Tag? Does Ioan smell of Burberry? Who knows?

Andrew Wiles, communications director for Dunhill, which uses Jude Law as its "brand ambassador", argues that unless the actor is a powerful role model - as, for example, Clooney's more recent political films have made him - there remains the risk of confusion between the actor and his latest character. Men are arguably more likely to identify with the macho posture than the actor himself. Wiles cites recent advertising by shirt-maker Turnbull & Asser featuring Daniel Craig, or, more accurately, James Bond.

"The motivation for men to shop for fashion is different," adds Wiles. "It's not driven by celebrity, as it often is for women, but more by their contemporaries. If an ad looks even remotely forced, a lot of male consumers just won't make the connection between actor and brand."

For the moment, the use of ATMs in men's fashion campaigns remains distinctive. But for how long? While some actors - notably Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks - refuse any kind of ad work, the willingness of most actors to take it represents a sea-change in thinking.

So there may come a time when actors have replaced models to such an extent that male consumers will become inured to celebrity influence. And just as actresses became cover girls when we all got bored of supermodels, eventually actors will need updating. According to Rivetti: "At a certain point it will all be too much." Perhaps Zegna is ahead of the curve. It has ended its relationship with Adrien Brody in favour of what is looking like a fresh, radical alternative: it is using good, old-fashioned, anonymous models.