Vive la différence? Native New Yorker can't deliver bons mots

Woody Allen is the wrong celebrity to sell France to the Americans, argues John Quelch

France has just made an important announcement: Woody Allen has been selected as the pitch man for the French tourism industry in the United States. American bookings to France are way down following the contretemps over the Iraq War, and the celebrated film-maker is the proposed solution.

In the campaign, Woody will apparently be promoting pommes frites as superior to freedom fries and French kissing as a superior art form. Little mention will be made of Versailles, Provence and the Louvre, as French officials believe, with not an ounce of prejudice, that these treasures are unlikely to appeal to an American audience.

But the French should have taken more care before choosing their "brand ambassador". The use of celebrities to endorse your products is always tempting. They have instant recognition, consumers can identify with them and, usually, they look good and can communi- cate well. But they also come with their own baggage.

Mr Allen is familiar and attractive to the brie and Chablis sets in America, who con- stitute less than 1 per cent of the US population. And he has an iffy track record of liaisons dangereuses (which could be seen as a French attribute). But his appeal is narrow. He is an avowed New Yorker, one of whose most famous films isManhattan. What's more, he is passé, over the hill. Perhaps Old America is a good way to pitch Old Europe, but surely French tourism should target a younger crowd. If the pitch man has to be an American, why not a current sports hero such as Lance Armstrong, the multi-time winner of the Tour de France?

Maybe he, and others, were asked and declined. Or perhaps Mr Allen was the first choice because he represents what the French government would like every American to be: self-absorbed, slightly confused, totally ineffectual, and in desperate need of French tutelage.

That the French feel they need an American to make their case to Americans is a betrayal of their own ethnocentrism (they would expect a US product marketed in France to be pitched by someone French). What about a portfolio of Catherine Deneuve, Sophie Marceau and Juliette Binoche making the 30-second case for bons temps in France? More appealing, surely, than Mr Allen? And if an American it had to be, the French tourism office might have used the famous quote of that revered American icon Thomas Jefferson: "Every man has two countries: his own and France."

Organisations that link themselves to stars run several risks. First, the celebrity may not be as widely known to the target audience as is presumed. Second, he or she may not add anything (other than attention-getting) to the advertiser's message. Third, if that person is not perceived as a credible spokesperson for the product being advertised, the result may be negative. Fourth, the celebrity may become a source of embarrassment, although Mr Allen must have got all the bad news out of the way already.

The best celebrity endorsers fit clearly with the values of the brand. A memorable example is the quintessentially British actor Robert Morley pitching for British Airways in the 1980s before the airline repositioned itself as a global player.

No, France could have done better. And Mr Allen could have done no worse.

John Quelch is the author of 12 books on marketing and management.

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