The History of Star-Studded Ad Campaigns is More Complicated Than You Think

Forget fame. These days, it’s all about prestige

Marc Jacobs has yet another big “get” with Missy Elliott and Sissy Spacek as the surprise stars of his new Fall 2016 campaign. It’s a pattern the fashion set has become accustomed to: no mention of a partnership, no press release, and then, bam!—an image drops featuring a well respected artist, singer, or actor who usually stays away from endorsement deals. These are people who put their heart, soul, and energy completely into their own work. They don’t have much time to shill someone else’s product. Last summer, Jacobs released image after image from his Fall 2015 campaign at unexpected times. There was one week where he released an image a day icons like Cher, Christy Turlington, Sofia Coppola, Winona Ryder, and more. Then a full week of silence. Then he dropped another one, just to keep the campaign-watchers (i.e., the Internet, a beast that must be fed) on their toes. In terms of publicity, it was brilliant on two levels: the obvious one was that having a celebrity guaranteed that it would receive press coverage covered. The second is that releasing them so sparingly meant that each image garnered its own press, rather than a one-and-done splash.

There was a time when fashion ads were left to models—it was beneath a true “star” to appear in them. This is what makes retro fur brand Blackglama’s ads so fascinating—they used celebrities in a time when star appearances in ads were unusual. Similarly to the way Jacobs has been selecting his roster, Blackglama chose legendary women (under their slogan “What becomes a legend most?”) to don its fur coats. From the late 1960s, and continuing into the ‘90s, the campaigns featured Diana Vreeland, Debbie Reynolds, Rita Hayworth, Lucile Ball, and Judy Garland, among many others.

Slowly, the cult of celebrity began to grow. They took over magazine covers and commercials. Ads started to become a series of one-up-manship: who could get the biggest star? For example, it was a big deal when Versace nabbed Madonna for its ads in 1995. There was a point in the 2000s where suddenly, every product had a celebrity spokesperson. Oscar winners, rock stars, and everyone in between was selling everything from phone plans to toothpaste. Fashion was no different, especially when it came to brands like The Gap, whose holiday ads always featured a menagerie of recognizable faces, most of whom were also selling cars or appliances at the time. Anna Nicole Smith made a splash as the face of Guess, and many a Disney kid made bank fronting Candies. But there were celebs that held out—the bastions of the A-list. This is what made Chanel’s 2004 commercial for No. 5 such a big deal: not that it was three minutes long, or that it cost $42 million to produce, but that it starred Moulin Rouge-era Nicole Kidman (incidentally, the ad is a play on the film, and was directed by Baz Luhrmann himself).

Lagerfeld, who is no stranger to casting starlets and It-girls in campaigns, managed to eclipse the Kidman-fronted No. 5 commercial less than a decade later, when he had Brad Pitt star in a series of ads. While they were less than well received (ok, more like universally mocked), we were all captivated by the choice of star—one who rarely attaches himself to a brand—and we, the Internet user, could not stop talking about it.

Luxury brands generally go balls-to-the-wall when it comes to their fragrance adverts, and stars are much more likely to sign on for the big payday and global exposure. Catherine Deneuve was the longtime face of Chanel No.5, going as far back as the1970s. Similarly, Charlize Theron has fronted ads for Dior’s J’adore for over a decade. But the brand still managed to surprise everyone with a J’adore ad that starred Theron, along with Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Grace Kelly. Nothing is more unexpected than watching the long deceased legends of Hollywood’s golden age primp backstage at a couture show.

Now, in the age of social media, where celebrities are themselves brands, it’s all about the perfect partnership. The majority of celebrities are tied to one product or another, and many brands hold a roster of stars in their deck. Depending on the product category, some celebs can even hold contracts with multiple brands without conflict. Up-and-coming musicians or actors are now thrown into campaigns alongside models, and the images are attached to a press release telling us that these fresh faces are sure to be the next-big-thing. Historically, this has worked—think of the iconic Calvin Klein ads with future Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg. When Herb Ritts lensed those unforgettable ads, Wahlberg was known as hip-hop singer Marky Mark, and had just released his first album. 

What creates news now is the truly inspired, out-of-the-box casting—the cultural legends, the individuals, those with critical acclaim and clout; those who have more claims to fame than a couple million Instagram followers; the people who are beyond public reach; the ones who don’t turn out for any old event. To put it succinctly, it’s about prestige. Erykah Badu, Joan Didion, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell: their names alone hold so much weight, and they are famously more private people who don’t splash themselves all over Instagram. Not to fawn here, but it really is a big deal when they appear in print ads for Givenchy, Céline, or Saint Laurent (as Badu, Didion, and Mitchell, respectively, did in 2014 and 2015), or short films for Louis Vuitton (as Bowie did in 2014). The reason why companies make the effort to pull these projects together is because they showcase not only the power of their brand, but shows they hold a cultural cache. What these designers are saying is, “I know who to approach, I know how to approach them, and they’re willing to say yes for only me.”

As it stands, Marc Jacobs is the king of casting. He has a long history of putting his famous pals in his ads, from his 1998 campaign, which starred Kim Gordon on stage in one of his dresses, through his Louis Vuitton days—his final campaign for the house featured a host of his personal famous friends and muses—through present day. If history has taught us anything (and we should always pay attention to history. Apparently it repeats itself), Elliott and Spacek will not be alone in this campaign. There will be more ads to come, certainly for beauty and menswear, and we will be gleefully surprised each time.

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