Celebrity Advertising: There's no escape from the world of the global commercial

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It is the year 2012. There is a Teletubbies revival and Baby Spice has just taken over as the new landlady of the Queen Vic Internet Salon in EastEnders. Tony Blair is still everywhere. He may no longer be Prime Minister but he appears regularly on our TV screens advertising a new chain of restaurants, Planet Politics. Having already done rather well out of endorsing private health care plans, he, Bill Clinton and Lionel Jospin have got together a nice little franchise in which you can eat turkey burgers - the last remaining cow was publicly executed several years ago amidst a display of digitally mastered world leaders.

Others of his ex-ministers are also cashing in. There is Lady Mowlam in another wacky Guinness commercial and Peter Mandelson flogging the very latest surveillance technology, Harriet Harman has endorsed the latest contraceptive device (a form of electronic tagging), while Jack Straw has been reduced to voice-overs for personal alarms. No one begrudges them the money though; there is a feeling among the advertising industry that celebrity endorsements are no longer where it's at. There are just so many damn celebrities selling so many damn products that the public has become sceptical. Market research shows that the only celebrities the public trusts are the ones who refuse to advertise dogfood, and since Dennis Skinner has cornered that market, that leaves hardly anyone.

Actually this future is not so far off. Nigel Lawson, Ken Livingstone, Denis Healey, Fergie, George Bush and Henry Kissinger, among others, have all lent their name to one ad campaign or another. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, is the latest to succumb to the lure of filthy lucre. He has just shot a television commercial for Pizza Hut for which it is reported that he was paid close to a $1m.

In the ad he arrives at Pizza Hut by limousine and the other diners notice him. One pipes up, "Because of him, we have economic confusion." A younger man disagrees, saying, "Because of him we have great opportunity." Some argument takes place until an older woman says, "Because of him we have things like Pizza Hut." Everyone rises and give a standing ovation to Mr Gorbachev, holding their pizza slices aloft in tribute. The former leader does not actually eat any pizza but smiles benignly as his granddaughter tucks in.

There are no plans to show the advert in Russia, which is just as well as Gorbachev is extremely unpopular there. The ad has already been ridiculed by the Russian press; but since leaving office, Gorbachev has done a number of odd jobs. He has been a newspaper columnist, after-dinner speaker and appeared in a Wim Wenders film talking about Dostoevsky. He has also made another ad, for Apple computers in Germany. Yet he realises that this Pizza Hut commercial is a new step. He had previously considered it "unsuitable" for someone of his standing. But as Marx didn't say: in the ideological battle between capitalism and communism, fast food will always triumph.

Does buying up "integrity" in the form of endorsements from ex-politicians really work? Gorby gets his dosh and Pizza Hut gets an ad that people will talk about for a week or so; but will it make us buy more pizza, which is what it is all in aid of? To see a former world leader advertising a rather tacky food chain has novelty value, but surely in some way it devalues the reputation of that leader. In our hearts we know that politics and commerce are not two mutually exclusive areas, but much of the time we like to pretend that they are. The idea that all politicians can be bought, one that we are unfortunately familiar with, eventually contributes to our lack of respect for them. The sight of Fergie desperately slurping cranberry juice is not a pretty one, yet Fergie really has nothing to lose in the credibility stakes.

However, even non-politicians have to be careful here. The Spice Girls have made the mistake of lending their names to so many products that their endorsement has become meaningless - cola, crisps, body spay. You name it they have overkilled it. The result is that their own branding has suffered.

While it may be easy to criticise particular individuals for selling out to the ad industry, the real story in advertising is not about celebrities as products but about the way advertising now forms the environment in which we live. The refusal of the Government to ban tobacco advertising was in part an admission that it could not effectively enforce such a ban.

The current battle between Adidas and Nike about who is to be most visible during the 1998 World Cup finals involves huge sums of money - Adidas has paid pounds 20m to be one of the official sponsors of the tournament - as well as complicated strategies to ambush each other's ad campaigns. As it is, an estimated 500 million people will watch the games, and it will only take a small percentage of them to go out and buy these trainers for either company to boom. Even those who don't buy them will have great brand recognition. Indeed this kind of sponsorship gives these companies such sophisticated and ubiquitous product placement that Nike was happy to pay pounds 250m over 10 years to sponsor Brazil.

Much of leisure, whether it involves sports or computing, takes place in environments that are totally monopolised by huge companies - from Nike to Pepsi to Microsoft - that are becoming virtually impossible to regulate. This is part of what globalisation means. There is little in the culture that cannot be used to sell to us. One by one, every "classic" pop song is used up, whatever the reputation of its creators. Thus the Velvet Underground can sell us tyres, Lou Reed the BBC and Janis Joplin's ironic ditty "Oh lord wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz" is used without a trace of irony to sell us Mercedes Benz.

All of this means that the existence of a space outside of advertising, outside of consumerism, becomes smaller and smaller. When everything and everyone becomes pure product to help shift other product, then maintaining brand recognition takes up more and more time, space and money. The stimulation of consumer desire is a massive operation.

In such a context, ex-world leaders like Gorby, selling their souls for a slice from the big pizza, are actually small fry, because when everyone and everything is for sale, because when it is assumed that ultimately every one has their price, we are all cheapened. It is not the ads that are beamed into our living rooms that we need to worry about as much as the fact that the backdrop of much of our lives is now little but an advertising hoarding. Gorby should have just said no. The rest of us don't have much choice.

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