"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why Celebrities Get Us To Buy Things

I must confess that I love celebrities.  I look forward to my haircut because of the head massage and People Magazine.  There without guilt, shame, or the feeling that someone might be looking over my shoulder, I can revel in the doings of David and Victoria Beckham, Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson,  Matthew McConaughey, and Jude Law.  I love to see who’s going with whom, who got divorced, who’s pregnant, and who’s fighting.  I especially like the paparazzi photos of Hollywood stars on beaches, in lounge chairs by the pool, dressed down and shopping, or primping for the camera. I can’t get enough.

I am not alone. Celebrities rule on the Internet and on television. Everywhere you look there is cleavage, abs, happy chatter, hairdos, and chirpy laughter.  There are whole channels devoted to celebrities (E!), and just about every magazine short of the New York Review of Books has a celebrity feature. Celebrities are on talk shows, news shows, sports shows and in ads everywhere.

It is this last phenomenon – celebrities selling products that have nothing to do with them – that Jamie Tehrani writes about In an article on the BBC News website (6.27.13). Tehrani argues that there is an evolutionary reason for our idolization of celebrities and it is called prestige. Whereas apes and other animals use forceful dominance to assert authority, bragging rights, and the choicest female, human beings confer authority on those whom we judge to be leaders, innovators, or spiritual guides. In the past prestige helped society develop and progress.

How did such systems arise? The most convincing theory suggests that prestige evolved as part of a package of psychological adaptations for cultural learning. It allowed our ancestors to recognize and reward individuals with superior skills and knowledge, and learn from them.

This allowed new discoveries and techniques - for instance, how to exploit the medicinal properties of plants or optimize the design of hunting weapons - to spread across the whole population, and enabled each successive generation to build on and improve the knowledge of their predecessors.

All well and good, except that this prestige-for-the-good-of-society has morphed into celebrity worship.  We may admire Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but these geeky guys couldn’t possibly sell us underwear, shoes, razors, or cars.  But the sleek, beautiful, graceful, and sexy Hollywood stars can.  Shouldn’t we pay more attention to the smart people of the world like Gates when he says “Buy this car”? Usain Bolt can run fast, but what does he know about high-performance automobiles?

Tehrani explains this phenomenon.  Looking up to an individual for a particular trait can be somewhat indiscriminate and “can lead to people adopting all kinds of behaviors exhibited by a role model, including ones that have nothing to do with their success.”

For example, men might observe a successful hunter perform some kind of incantation at the same time as he re-touches his arrowheads, and adopt both the ritual as well as his knapping techniques as a single package when they prepare their own tools.

This tendency, I believe, explains our interest in what sports stars and singers wear, what car they drive, and where they go shopping.

Enough academic license. We love celebrities because they are everything we are not – rich, beautiful and famous.  They are dream-makers, spinners of fantasy, living and breathing icons of beauty, elegance, and sophistication.  They are edgy, cool, risk-takers. They are all image, and the image is everything because it represents the popular zeitgeist.

Movie theatres in India are always packed for the big song-and-dance films that are cranked out by Bollywood at a rate which beggars Hollywood and all the American independents combined.  Hundreds of millions of Indians watch these fantasy epics every week and have to be pried out of their seats at the tearful end.  These three-hour interludes are a complete break from the heat and dust, crowds, and poverty of real life.  There are escapism at its purist because the reality from which Indian moviegoers escape is far more brutal than that in America.

What Tehrani fails to mention is the mechanism of persuasive advertising. The celebrity attracts attention to herself, then to the product.  After that many other more complex steps in buying decisions are made.  There is a high value in the smallest shifts of market share that if an advertiser can get you to look at his product, half the battle is won.  This picture of Usher may not convince you to get MasterCard now – you are already deep in debt and have a wallet-full of maxed-out credit cards – but his image has drawn you to a card that you might have overlooked in the era of Visa dominance.

So celebrities are show-stoppers, attention-getters, popular icons, and hopes for unfulfilled wishes; but surrogate prestige-hawkers?  I doubt it.

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