Before he was president of the United States, Ronald Reagan was the governor of the state of California. Before he was either of those things, he was a successful Hollywood actor. Along the way from Hollywood to the White House, he was also a very effective advertising pitchman.
The word “pitchman” is an advertising industry term for a person who sells, or “pitches”, a product. Back during Reagan’s time in the entertainment industry – as opposed to his time in the political industry, which is not nearly as fun or remunerative – pretty much every major star appeared in print advertisements.
Reagan and Humphrey Bogart sold cigarettes (Reagan’s brand was Chesterfield; Bogie sold Lucky Strikes). Grace Kelly pitched shampoo. James Mason, the quintessential elegant English gentleman, pushed Studebaker cars and a very low-end wine. The great film director and actor Orson Welles can still be heard on YouTube struggling his way through a television advertisement for frozen peas.
In other words, if you’re a famous person with an appealing and trustworthy reputation, people who make things will pay you a lot of money to help them sell those things. It doesn’t matter, really, if movie stars actually use the products they’re selling – it’s hard to imagine Orson Welles cooking up a bag of frozen peas – because the goal is to show the product in the reflected glow of that star’s halo. If it’s good enough for Grace Kelly’s hair, went the thinking, consumers will believe it’s good enough for theirs.
Mostly, that works. Walk through any busy international airport and you can see George Clooney – the closest thing we have these days to an old fashioned, genuine movie star – pitching Nespresso coffee machines and Omega watches. Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably one of the most famous actors around, has had a very lucrative career in Japan as a pitchman for a brand of drinks. These are big companies and valuable brands, so it’s only logical that they pay dearly for the association with internationally cool celebrities. And it must result in a measurable bump up in the bottom line, or otherwise why would they do it?
There are pitfalls, of course. Actor Pierce Brosnan – known to most of the world as the guy who was James Bond before the guy who is James Bond right now – has appeared in dozens of advertisements for watches, drinks, cars, suits, you name it. Part of the contractual understanding between the producers of the James Bond films and the actor who is (temporarily) inhabiting the role is that a big part of the James Bond profit stream comes from these kinds of advertisements, and if an actor agrees to play the role on the big screen, he also agrees to play the role in a BMW, a Brioni suit, or wearing an Omega watch.
Brosnan is no longer James Bond – Daniel Craig is currently the pitchman with that title – but he’s still got something that marketers and brands worldwide want. Recently the actor appeared in a series of television commercials in India promoting a breath freshener called Pan Bahar. The trouble is, the product has been deemed dangerous. It has been listed by the World Health Organization as carcinogenic, leading to an increased risk of mouth and throat cancer.
When an embarrassed Brosnan learnt the exact nature of the product using his likeness on Indian television, he demanded that they pull the ads from circulation. Clearly, times have changed from when Bogart and president Reagan cheerfully pitched another well-known carcinogen to millions of American consumers.
Sometimes it’s not the product that’s toxic, it’s the pitchman. Or, should I say, pitchmen. Anheuser-Busch, a giant American drinks manufacturer, hired comic superstars Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer to help sell a lighter-tasting, reduced-calorie drink.
They launched the expensive campaign during high-profile sporting matches, and created a series of television commercials highlighting the product and trying to drive up its youth appeal. If it’s good enough for Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer, went the message to young consumers, it’s good enough for you.
Young consumers, it turned out, didn’t care who it was good for. They didn’t think it was good enough for them. Sales of the brand actually declined, and the company has shelved the campaign for good.
It’s not clear what went wrong here. Schumer and Rogen are major movie stars, and each one has a measurable appeal to the target audience of Anheuser-Busch’s advertising campaign. Both, though, are associated with social and political movements that may have turned off some consumers, or at least muddied the message. Pitchmen – and pitchwomen – have to tread a careful line. They must be popular and trusted, but they also must remain broadly appealing. Often that means maintaining a neutral, or at least discreet, political profile. Politics and pitching don’t mix.
Until they do, as president Ronald Reagan discovered. He was an effective pitchman for products, and later, for policy. If you can sell a toxic and unhealthy product, he taught us, you can probably sell anything. Even politics. And what’s more toxic and unhealthy than that?
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles
On Twitter: @rcbl