A spokesman doesn’t do what you think they do. Their real purpose is kept a secret, because if you knew it, their services wouldn’t be worth millions of dollars. They’d be nearly worthless. You’re even encouraged to indulge your cynicism, to peel back that first layer and congratulate yourself on spotting a vacuous celebrity collecting piles of cash to sell you a product they may not even like.
If everything goes as planned, this satisfies you. You’ve discovered the secret. The millions of dollars paid to fool you didn’t work. You pat yourself on the back and keep going. Never mind that you’ve internalized the value of that celebrity’s reputation decreasing if the product fails, and so assume it’s somewhat decent. That’s already a major victory for the company, and probably worth their money, but it goes much deeper.
Letting you feel like you’ve figured it out gives them room to accomplish their real goal while hiding in plain sight. They’re paying that money to get you to ascribe the character traits and personality of a living, breathing human to a legal fiction, an ever-changing financial instrument that exists only to generate profit.
Michael Jordan–now there’s a spokesman. Whenever I think of Nike, I imagine him hunched over, sweat dripping from his brow in slow motion as he dribbles a basketball. I imagine his affability, his perseverance, his success. Those traits bleed over to the company, the shoes, and even the logo. It’s eerie, especially considering Nike is little more than a bunch of stuffy old businessmen directing a few sweatshops sewing together garments. Let that sink in. If the brand Nike means anything to you more than glued together scraps of cloth and leather, the branding wasn’t worth millions; it was worth billions. It was worth every cent they have.
Teasing apart the brand and the person is tricky. “Michael Jordan” the brand is a product that Michael Jordan the person sells to companies. They seem quite similar, but are no more related than a car and its salesman. Companies call up the person and ask, “People are familiar with you. Will you please sell your public persona to us so that we may blur it together with our product?” Ideally, you never consider this, because if you did, the value of branding and spokespeople declines to nearly zero.
If you can convince people that your brand has personality traits in common with a liked human being, the reward can be immense. People will care about you like they care about a human. They will feel actual loyalty far beyond what they would based only on the quality of your products. They will defend “your” character to people, fight for you, all the things they’d do for another real fellow human.
The risks, however, can be just as dangerous as the rewards. What if the brand is poisoned by the actions of the individual whose personality was purchased? When the company went out to purchase the personality, they didn’t intend to purchase future actions as well. Too bad. The whole transaction is designed to mislead, and this is one of the unintended consequences of deliberately trying to confuse people into thinking a human and a corporation share personalities. When the person does something questionable, the company takes the same hit.
The person doesn’t even need to do something that can be considered bad. Just a couple tweaks are enough to change the product that person is selling enough to make it unmarketable. Imagine a friendly old man with a white moustache who loves kids lending his image to some snack company. If he’s seen dating a woman significantly younger, suddenly all his attributes are seen in a new light. Even the moustache turns creepy. Bill the person may have done nothing wrong, but he’s done enough to make “Bill” the product unmarketable and poisonous to any brand that may have previously purchased his personality for use by their company. This says nothing about Bill the person. If Bill were a car salesman and started selling blue instead of red cars, you are certainly within the realm of reasonable action to decline to buy blue cars from him because that’s not what you want.
When companies deal in spokespeople, they are almost certainly dealing in stereotypes. Stereotypes are a powerful mechanism for collecting a group of personality traits and wrapping them up nicely so they can be communicated at once, as a set, to many, many people. The danger of these stereotypes is that similar sets of traits can embody extremely different stereotypes. The friendly old man mentioned above went from a positive stereotype to a very negative one with only slight changes. Many of the recent controversies with spokespeople trace back to this. The outspoken southern grandmother stereotype isn’t that far from the racist old lady stereotype. The gun-loving, hunting southern gentleman stereotype isn’t far from the racist, anti-government gun nut stereotype.
This is where people get confused, and rightfully so. Bill is still a normal person deserving of the normal range of human emotions, compassion, forgiveness, respect, but the product he’s selling, “Bill,” and it is nothing more than a product, no longer has the same value. Companies no longer wish to buy this product. He changed the formula, however unintentionally, with his own actions.
Here’s where deliberately confusing people into thinking companies have personality backfires. People think a decision to stop buying the persona a person is selling for millions of dollars is a rebuke of the actual living, breathing person. “You don’t want to buy their product anymore? You must think they’re a bad person!”
That is the dilemma. If you want people to think your product has a personality and be loyal to it like they would another human, be prepared for them to get very confused and angry when you no longer want that same personality to embody their product. Likewise, if you are attempting to sell a set of character traits to a company, prepare for that set to change value depending on your actions and thoughts. Certainly, all people deserve similar treatment and judgment regardless of their wealth or status, but they should have absolutely no expectation that the monetary sale value of their personality to companies be in any way consistent or proportional to their human value.