The Art of Celebrity Endorsement

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I am completely baffled by the trend for headphone manufacturers to have celebrities endorse their products. First, I am baffled by some of the so-called ‘celebrities’ chosen. For example, while Tim Lincecum may be a household name in the US, I am not sure that anyone in Australia has any idea who he is. But even if I did know who he was, why would I think that a baseball pitcher has any idea of what headphones should sound like?

And what’s with the propensity for headphone manufacturers to pay DJs and rappers to endorse their products? I enjoy rap as much as the next person (which is, to say, not much) but I fail to see what it has to do with music. As for DJs, I admire their musical sensibilities, but in order to become famous, DJs have spent (literally) thousands of hours in nightclubs honing their skills, during which time they were exposed almost continuously to noise levels that have been proven to destroy anyone’s hearing. And, according to one world-famous DJ of my acquaintance,
few—if any—professional DJs wear earplugs when working,
so their hearing is probably completely shot anyway.

So why should I imagine that just because a DJ has ‘endorsed’ a pair of headphones that they will actually sound any good? In fact quite the opposite may be the case. When 21 specially-trained listeners and 71 untrained college students were asked to evaluate one of the most commercially successful headphones, endorsed by a world-famous DJ, against a reference pair of studio headphones, every one of them ranked the endorsed headphones second, with most noting their sound variously as being ‘boomy’, ‘muffled’, or ‘coloured’. To rub salt into the wound, the DJ-endorsed headphones were considerably more expensive than the reference pair of headphones.

So why do manufacturers persist in selling them? For the money, of course! A study published in the Journal of Advertising found that celebrity endorsements deliver a 4 per cent growth in revenue. As a manufacturer, what you’re hoping for is that fans of the celebrity you pay to endorse your product will buy it just because he or she has endorsed it. Justin Bieber has 34.5 million followers on Twitter, while even a brand as famous as Starbucks can muster only 3.4 million. So if Starbucks could get a Justin Bieber endorsement, the pay-off would be that even if only a small percentage of Bieber’s fanbase started drinking at Starbucks, coffee sales could easily leap by more than 100 percent. That’s why Dr Dre builds special ‘Justin Bieber’ and ‘Lady Gaga’ editions of his headphones, despite being a celebrity in his own right. (That is, so that people who don’t like him will buy his Bieber-branded or Gaga-branded designs, so he’ll make more money.)

So why do consumers persist in buying them? I admit that one has me stumped too. Ask me whether I’d rather buy a pair of headphones from a company that’s been manufacturing them for decades, and during that time has poured millions of dollars into research and technology—companies such as AKG, Sennheiser, and Beyer Dynamic spring to mind—or from some start-up company I’ve never heard of that has no R&D department, doesn’t own its own factory, but has an endorsement from some celebrity, and I’m pretty sure you already know where I’d spend my money.

Frankly, that’s where I’d suggest you spend your money too… greg borrowman

This article first appeared in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, Volume 45 No 2, March 2014.