What’s My Line?

From the Fall 2012 edition of Vanderbilt Business

myline-350From Bob Hope’s hawking American Express Travelers Cheques in the 1950s to quirky actress Zooey Deschanel’s selling the latest iPhone today, celebrities have long served as the advertising industry’s not-so-secret weapon.

As consumers, we want the same services and products as the good-looking, glamorous set—or if nothing else, we tend to remember the famous associations these figures bring to whatever they’re endorsing.

And while these celebrities may be among the most commonly familiar and well-liked people, the vast majority of the population knows very little about their political and religious attitudes and values.

In fact, the less that is known about a famous figure, the more the public views them in a favorable light, according to new research co-authored by Steve Posavac, the E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Marketing.

“As perceivers learn more, there is an increased likelihood that the evidence will indicate that celebrities have middling attributes” that show just as many flaws as other people, Posavac and his co-authors write in a paper for Basic and Applied Social Psychology. “Perhaps more significantly, evidence may reveal to perceivers that celebrities’ political views, religious practices and social attitudes are different from their own, leading to less liking.”

So carefully controlled are the images of most celebrities that the researchers in this study found it difficult to compile reliable information on possible test subjects in preparation for their experiments. For one of the main experiments, however, they did find two famous figures whose personal viewpoints are well-known and diametrically opposed: Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson.

With 131 undergraduates participating in the study for extra credit, the students were randomly given descriptions about Hanks and Gibson—one innocuously detailing each actor’s film career, the other discussing specific political and religious points of view.

Steve Posavac
Steve Posavac

When asked about the likability of each, “liberals and conservatives did not differ in their evaluations of Hanks and Gibson when information was not presented,” according to the study. “However, when descriptions of the practices and attitudes of the celebrities were provided, liberals and conservatives diverged in their evaluations of the actors, particularly Gibson.” (It should be noted that the study was conducted prior to widespread news coverage of Gibson’s domestic conflicts.)

In another experiment, student participants were chosen based on the results of a pretest in which they favorably rated six celebrities: Will Smith, Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Johnny Depp and Scarlett Johansson. They were then asked a series of questions about the celebrities’ political and religious views.

For the researchers, this served as a mental prompt that allowed them to compare attitudes for celebrities prior to thinking about how much participants knew of them personally, versus after completing the questionnaire. What Posavac and his colleagues found is that, “participants perceived the celebrities to have significantly less credibility” when they were made aware of how little they knew about them.

This dynamic can be seen in many real-world contexts. Tom Cruise, Lindsey Lohan and Tiger Woods, to name but a few, all experienced sharp declines in popularity (and celebrity endorsement deals) after personal shortcomings were revealed. Posavac and his colleagues also point to the case of Rashard Mendenhall, an NFL running back who posted unpopular views about the killing of Osama Bin Laden on Twitter. The backlash led the apparel manufacturer Champion to end its endorsement deal with him and endangered his spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“People appear to be taken by celebrities, in part, because they are highly familiar while being simultaneously unknown,” the researchers write. That is, in the absence of information, people fill in the personality blanks of celebrities with their own views and values.

What’s more, distinct groups differ in how they perceive celebrities once they have more information about their views. In the experiment with Hanks and Gibson, liberals and women tended to rate Gibson less favorably with more information. Similarly, likability ratings among conservatives and men dropped as they learned more about Hanks’ views.

“The findings reveal one of the important foundations underlying the adoration of celebrities: ignorance,” Posavac and his co-authors write. “Unless celebrities harbor mainstream attitudes that have widespread appeal, they are probably better off financially keeping their opinions and practices private.”

A version of this article originally appeared in VB Intelligence on July 25, 2012.