The dwindling culture of celebrity: Why brands are turning away from big names

Molly Rowan Hamilton, Strategy Director at BrandOpus NY on how celebrities are no longer the only icons of our society. Everyday people are too and increasingly, they call the shots.


Celebrity endorsements have played a powerful role in influencing our decision making for over 250 years. From Mark Twain to Michael Jordan, celebrities have helped bolster both sales and status.

The relationship between the two has been constantly evolving throughout. From cinema, to printed press and then digital media, there have been ever increasing tools to showcase a brand’s relationship with the celebrities they choose to partner with. And in the second half of the 20th century, as they became more accessible and recognisable, they were the perfect partner to elevate a brand in the mind of the consumer. 

Yet in last couple of decades, the cult of celebrity began to dwindle. The onset of the glossy / gossipy magazines started to show us the less rosy side of their private lives, taking them off the pedestal they existed in before then. That coupled with direct social media contact has shattered their mystique, which in a way was their biggest appeal. Naturally, this has had a knock-on effect in their relationship with brands; think of the Kate Moss cocaine exposé of 2005 and the subsequent cancellation of her deals with both Burberry and H&M.

This decline has only been exaggerated with the onset of the pandemic. The last year has been characterised by a notable lack of reverence for many of the things we previously saw as status symbols and a disillusionment in systems we’d previously respected. Elevated yet unattainable individuals no longer have as much cultural cache as they did. And our desire for transparency often punishingly holds people to account. Celebrities in particular aren’t getting away with anything. Locked at home, with more time on our hands we’ve begun to push beyond the filters. Sleuthing from behind our screens and scratching beneath the surface in search of the truth in a world we increasingly have come to distrust. I’m looking at you, Hilaria Baldwin. 

We are ultimately no longer willing to blindly accept celebrities, what they stand for and what they endorse.

Molly Rowan Hamilton

Questioning the role of celebrity

The ads in this year’s Super Bowl felt like a very real depiction of the shattering of this allure. By all means it was the year of the underdog. The big brands who typically dominate the most prestigious ad spots moved themselves to the bench and a record number of ‘first-timers’ stepped into the limelight. These newbies were agile e-commerce sites and household products that have profiteered from the changes that occurred through the pandemic. And while celebrities were definitely present in the ads, by and large, the younger brands’ ads were devoid of them. 

There’s no doubt that marketeers of these newbies are clearly questioning their connection to celebrities as they seek to build credibility in the minds of their following. Of course, there’s an issue of cost. But strikingly, the adverts of these new-to-Super Bowl attendees were about real people, doing real things, in real life situations to reflect their brands solutions to real-people problems.

Vroom’s ad focussed on the everyday pains of buying a car. Fiverr’s focussed on the role it played in helping business be nimble with their workforce, especially during the pandemic. Indeed highlighted the drive behind real people getting jobs. Chipotle focussed in on the farmers behind the product because the pandemic has shifted consumers toward a ‘community-focused society’. Mercari’s ad used actors who were already living together, specifically to make these people feel more authentic. Where celebrities were present in these ‘new to spot’ ads, they seemed somewhat superfluous and out of touch, such as in the Scotts & Miracle-Gro advert which felt like a string of seemingly unconnected celebrities with little tie to the product.

The rise of the everyday icon

All of this doesn’t necessarily mean celebrity endorsements don’t have value. By all means, bring celebrities or ‘talent’ into a more consultative, holistic and therefore meaningful relationship with your business. Think of the recent partnership between Beyoncé and Peloton. Beyoncé was already a Peloton member. Her connection feels authentic and honest, an alignment of two, quite literal powerhouses. She expressed the appeal in partnering ‘with a company that helps people, young and old, be the best version of themselves.’ The whole partnership feels genuine.

But the strategy should be to avoid surface level endorsement deals that feel forced or inauthentic. Or at least be smart in the way that you use them. Jeep’s Bruce Springsteen ad had to be pulled from lack of due diligence in the lead up. Bringing a celebrity on for his ‘name’ won’t ever trump the incongruence of the leading star for a car brand having a DUI offense. Or take Kendall Jenner, who in the last week has been slandered for her ‘cultural appropriation’ in creating tequila brand 818. Which brings back strange memories of her Pepsi advert seen to ‘trivialize’ the BLM movement. As one Twitter user called out, ‘please buy from real Mexican brands & don’t give these rich white horrible celebs any of your money.’ No, it’s not an endorsement deal, but it does show that association with a celebrity no longer automatically sells more product nor is it a free pass to success in the way it might have been in the past. Perhaps the opposite is now even the case, due to the excess scrutiny it attracts.

This seems to perfectly embody the shift that’s so important to understand: we are ultimately no longer willing to blindly accept celebrities, what they stand for and what they endorse. They’re no longer the only icons of our society. Everyday people are too. And increasingly, we call the shots.