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The Celebrity Cell

Uh-oh. Is Jessica Simpson living in your brain? Researchers now know why we remember celebrity-filled ads. But do they work?

The Celebrity Cell

To use a celebrity spokesperson or not, that is the question — at least in the insular world of Madison Avenue. This summer, it seemed as if medical science had taken a step closer to finding a definitive answer when researchers at UCLA and CalTech found that simply flashing the letters “H-A-L-L-E-B-E-R-R-Y” triggered a strong cognitive response in a single human brain cell. The letters drew the same reaction as a picture of the Academy Award-winning actress. The trick also worked with Jennifer Aniston and the Sydney Opera House.

Although this brain research is preliminary, the implication is that fame — or at least familiarity — tops everything when it comes to stimulating recall. In other words, it’s possible that celebrities are actually taking up residence in individual neurons.

A UCLA Medical Center spokesperson politely, but firmly, waved us away from drawing any inferences about how this study might further strengthen the celebrity-industrial complex’s firm grip on advertising. Apparently, brain surgeons don’t discuss “marketing implications.” But ad jockeys may know something that science is just realizing: Nonfamous people like famous people. According to an Advertising Age survey last year, 7 of the 10 most-recalled ads of 2003 included celebrities.

Amanda Bower, an assistant professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University who studies the marketing effects of beauty, thinks the brain research could be misinterpreted. With advertising, she says, “it’s important to distinguish between mere recognition versus effectiveness.” In beauty advertising in particular, though, trotting out a gorgeous famous person to shill for the product is numbingly automatic.

No wonder Unilever’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” promoting Dove cosmetics has made such a splash. Girl-next-door types in their underwear — fat, skinny, young, old — undeniably turn heads. And beyond that, they ring the register, not just brain neurons. The campaign in the United Kingdom sent sales of Dove’s firming cream from 280,000 units in 2003 to 2.3 million a year later. Why? Because Dove nailed its target audience: women who’ve given up on the faint hope that some drugstore item will transform them into Cameron Diaz.

Perhaps the real key to why Dove has been successful is that its campaign is distinctly different — in a good way — from any other beauty advertising. One has to wonder how many neurons get allocated to advertising that’s surprising or unique. Get cracking, brain surgeons.