Emily Yahr (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Rob Lowe may have left “Parks and Recreation,” but suddenly he’s on TV more than ever. You likely know this because you’ve been bombarded by those weird DirecTV commercials where his alter-ego, “Super Creepy Rob Lowe,” only has regular cable and is therefore a potbellied weirdo who lurks at public pools.
Lowe isn’t the only actor at the peak of his career to start shilling for a huge company. Need we remind you about Matthew McConaughey, the recent Oscar winner whose ads for Lincoln Motor are impossible to escape? Of course not. You’ve seen his widely-parodied commercial, featuring the actor driving an SUV down a dark road reciting a monologue.
It was rightly skewered on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend by host Jim Carrey, who mocked the opening lines of the real life ad: “Sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward . . . I mean, take a big step back. Like, go from winning an Oscar to doing a car commercial.”
Carrey’s bit pointed out the obvious issue. What’s the deal with stars who have it all — huge paychecks, awards, acclaim — taking part in overplayed TV spots? Why become the person who exasperated viewers see and immediately change the channel when they simply can’t take watching your commercial again?
That’s easy, some advertising experts say: Because these days, the more exposure, the better. Gone are the days when appearing in an ad was seen as lame and selling out — such as when Brad Pitt and George Clooney would film commercials exclusively overseas so the U.S. audience would never see.
Now, it’s just common sense in an increasingly competitive marketplace to stay in the public eye however possible. It’s an added bonus if the celebrity genuinely likes the brand.
“I think that because of digital media and social media, people are not afraid of that stigma to be a sell-out anymore,” said Pete Favat, chief creative officer at ad agency Deutsch in Los Angeles. “It used to be that if you considered yourself an artist, you would never sell out for commercial purposes. But the world is getting used to it and celebrities are getting used to it.”
Another reason is pure economics. Even if, say, Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t really need more millions of dollars from filming a Capital One commercial, the job is hard to pass up. It’s a few easy days’ work for a bigger salary than he could make in several movies.
Evidence: Successful actors line up to do those Capital One ads, including Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Garner. Of course, some stars don’t really even care that much about the financial perks: A job is a job and they just like to keep busy. (Baldwin said he got paid $15 million for the gig and gave it all to charity.)
Plus, it’s a win for the brands. Even though companies pay exorbitant fees for celebrities to appear in their ads, they realize that in the age of social media, they can get a huge additional tidal wave of publicity as people start tweeting about the commercials. That itself makes the deal much more appealing.
As for the potential image problems of being in an annoying ad, experts wave it off — it doesn’t really matter. (If anything, Favat said, it’s more a risk for the brand to attach their name to a star who could potentially make negative headlines.)
In fact, a commercial appearance could even be a bonus image-wise for someone like McConaughey, who is already lightly mocking his serious “True Detective” persona in the Lincoln commercials anyway.
That paired with the many parodies prove that McConaughey “can still be the butt of a joke,” said Cary Hatch, CEO of Washington-based MDB Communications. “Honestly, in today’s world, that probably lights up Twitter and makes them more contemporary and more relevant.”