The appeal of older celebrities as product spokesmen

NEW YORK •Which celebrity can give the advertiser an ad-vantage in promotional materials?

For many companies, choosing the perfect spokesman for cars, coffee machines, soft drinks, shampoo, make-up or cellphone service providers is a tricky business.

Marketers and advertising executives consider it a blend of market research, Q-ratings (a measure of celebrity brand appeal) and plain old dumb luck.

But it cannot compete with the challenge of coming up with the right big name to pitch products aimed at older customers, who fall outside what television advertisers call the target demographic - between the ages of 25 and 54.

After all, when the discussion is about life insurance, reverse mortgages or drugs for crippling ailments, the stakes are higher and the consequences of an imprudent choice greater.

Actors and singers of a certain age tend to be the ones who make the grade.

Will & Grace actress Blythe Danner, 74, has represented Prolia, a drug to combat bone loss. Best Actress Oscar winner Sally Field, 70, was the spokesman for another osteoporosis treatment, Boniva.

The men? They are commonly matched with lenders that sell reverse mortgages, a type of home- equity loan in which the bank gives you money and takes your house when you die. The list includes Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck, 72, Happy Days icon Henry Winkler, 71, and Hart To Hart star Robert Wagner, 87.

"This isn't like buying a can of Coke or Pepsi," said Mr Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple, a brand consulting firm.

"These are often complicated purchase decisions and (older customers) may question if these celebrities know what they're talking about. They've seen them on TV and in movies and have liked them as entertainers," he added, "but not necessarily as trusted advisers on complex matters."

Mr Reza Jahangiri, founder and chief executive of American Advisors Group, a reverse mortgage lender, said Selleck was picked based partly on the response of a consumer focus group to questions such as these: "If you could choose one celebrity to have over as a dinner guest, who would you invite?", "Who do you think best represents your age group?" and "Who would you consider the most trustworthy?"

Mr Jahangiri said: "When you're appealing to a younger demographic, it's okay for a celebrity to have more blemishes, to have more ups and downs.

"But when you're talking about a big financial decision for a senior, the celeb has to be trusted and credible and that comes from a long- standing career and goodwill that's been engendered both on- and off-screen."

Millennials (and their younger siblings) are looking for aspirational figures in their celebrity spokesmen.

But older Americans respond to names who look like them, with grey or greying hair plus a few wrinkles or more.

"If Tom were 20 years younger, I don't think he'd be as effective. Callers tell our operators that they watched Tom on Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988), they love him and are considering learning more about reverse mortgages because of him," said Mr Jahangiri.

It is not simply that the celebrity spokesman is a familiar face - he or she may be the only familiar face for some older people.

"Retirees have a lot of risks and they know they have risks. They know the hazards of, say, not having enough life insurance," said Dr David Demko, a clinical gerontologist in Orange Park, Florida.

"But sometimes they're at a remove, geographical or emotional, from family members. They've retired and they don't have coworkers to turn to for advice or they've moved to a new town and haven't yet established a circle of friends.

"Their support network is gone and they're prime targets for scams, so when they see a celebrity, it's like, 'There's a life raft. That familiar face is going to help me figure it out.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'The appeal of older celebrities as product spokesmen'. Print Edition | Subscribe