The Triumph of the Celebrity Endorsement

Critic’s Notebook

Shilling stars used to be accused of “selling out.” Now they’re hailed as savvy investors and giving the performances of their careers.



Photo Illustration by Julia Panek; Photos via Getty ImagesCredit

Amanda Hess

When I learned that Catherine Zeta-Jones would be appearing on a website called TalkShopLive to launch a new product line under her Casa Zeta-Jones label, I was not sold. I loved watching Zeta-Jones ooze charisma across a movie screen, in “Chicago,” in “High Fidelity,” even in “America’s Sweethearts.” But recently I had mostly seen her featured in gross clickbait slide shows stuck to the bottoms of articles — the kind with dire headlines like “What Happened to Catherine Zeta-Jones?” — and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.

Still, I swiped unthinkingly over to Instagram, where she had posted a video teasing to her appearance. Zeta-Jones materialized amid a seemingly endless kitchen arranged with voluptuous glassware and lit like a near-death experience. “Well, hello there,” she purred.

Zeta-Jones presented the mundane details of her advertorial livestream as if languidly ushering the viewer into a posh society event. “I shall be launching my very own Casa Zeta-Jones coffee line,” she said. “With you. Live. On my TalkShopLive channel. Monday, March the 22nd. Six o’clock Eastern Standard Time. So it will be coffee with Catherine. Chat. Coffee. Chat. A few mugs thrown in there.” She said this last part, about the mugs, with such a charmingly insouciant shrug that by the time she signed off — “Can’t wait to see you, cheers” — I felt, actually, happy for her.

My Casa Zeta-Jones emotional journey — from denial to depression and ultimately to acceptance — feels related to a wider mood shift around famous people selling things. There has always been a status hierarchy among celebrity brands, which chart somewhere on a reputational scale between the Air Jordan and the George Foreman Grill. But not too long ago, stars aligning their images with multivitamins or prepaid debit cards might have been eyed skeptically, their efforts coded as a cynical money grab (George Clooney for Nespresso) or a pitiful last resort (the Joan Rivers Classics Collection for QVC). When celebrities cashed in, they also risked diminishing their credibility as serious artists.

Now the opposite is true. Stars are respected for how much profit they can generate, even if the stuff they’re selling is inexpensive. This does not in any way compromise their mystique. That is how, over the past decade-and-a-half, the prevailing cultural interpretation of the Kardashians moved from dismissing them as idiot shills to regarding them as secret geniuses.

When Joan Rivers started marketing her branded wares on QVC, in 1990, a celebrity’s transition from entertainer to salesperson played as mournful. As she put it in 2004, “only dead celebrities” would deign to appear on the network, to sit on its muted pastel sets and gesture toward gold-plated necklaces. “My career was over,” Rivers said. “I had bills to pay.”

QVC still exists, and I’d like to think Rivers would find it funny that the network honors her “legacy” by selling her line from beyond the grave. (It also offers a Casa Zeta-Jones illuminated urn). But the internet has outpaced its claim to celebrity-consumer intimacy. Instagram is, for all intents and purposes, Millennial QVC. Tap on an Instagram photo and a bouquet of brand names blooms atop it, the social-media version of QVC’s onscreen info boxes. The difference is that now, you don’t have to pick up the phone to buy something, because you’re already on your phone. The new home shopping network backdrop is the celebrity’s home itself. And there is very little shame attached to any of it.

The celebrity endorsement is a three-way relationship connecting the star, the product and us, and the internet has worked to draw all of its participants closer and closer together. We’re all mingling on the same platforms, our photos pinned to the same timelines. Social media influencers have narrowed the distinction between celebrities’ claims to fame and their ability to exploit that through sales: Influencers’ notoriety is itself derived from their facility at moving product. And as rocketing start-ups made its CEOs famous, traditional stars from Ryan Reynolds to Rihanna have remade themselves as entrepreneurs. Today’s power move is not to land a contract as a celebrity spokesmodel, getting paid to get bossed around by some company, but to become the corporate boss yourself, seizing credit as a co-founder, co-owner, or creative director.

Regardless of the celebrities’ actual involvement in the creation of these products, the items nevertheless feel ever more entwined with the personas. They have not just passed through the stars’ manicured hands. They have sprung directly from their skulls.

This has all helped to usher in a golden age of celebrity branding. Today you can wear Kim Kardashian shapewear under Nicole Richie sleepwear on a Rita Ora duvet tossed with an Ellen DeGeneres pillow. You can raise your child on Jennifer Garner organic baby food and Jessica Alba organic cotton wipes and organic diapers with jaunty prints designed by Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. You can shake up some drinks with Drake champagne, Chainsmokers tequila, Post Malone rosé and cocktail mixers courtesy of Jax Taylor and Lance Bass, and then — in select jurisdictions — roll Snoop Dogg cannabis in Wiz Khalifa papers and ash into a receptacle lovingly designed by Seth Rogen. And that’s not even counting the class of social media personalities, like Addison Rae, who have appeared to leap effortlessly from executing 15-second TikTok dance routines to alchemizing fully articulated makeup lines.

Zeta-Jones’s new line of coffees reminded me of the branding saga that embroiled a former co-star, George Clooney, in the early 2000s. Clooney appeared in commercials for Nespresso, a Nestle capsule-based espresso and coffee machine, that — like many campaigns celebrities perceive as potentially embarrassing — aired exclusively abroad. Thanks to the wonders of streaming online video, American viewers caught sight of the ads, and Clooney was exposed as a shifty operator: He became the movie star who thought he was too good for the corporate coffee machine with delusions of grandeur. At press events, Clooney was framed as a sellout and a hypocrite, and he started defensively announcing that his Nespresso money funded a satellite used to surveil a Sudanese war criminal.

Clooney thought he could rehab his image by spending his ad money on something virtuous, but his real reputational problem lied in his relationship to how he had generated the cash. When Clooney joined his friend Rande Gerber in developing a tequila, Casamigos, then sold it in a billion-dollar deal, he was suddenly game to chat about it, jauntily pronouncing “Jalisco” in interviews and bragging about how many shots he’d downed with his pal to achieve the smoothest pour. The backlash never arrived. (In 2015, Clooney emerged from the Nespresso closet, too, signing on to rep the brand in North America.)

Beneath these high-wattage deals, a certain hokeyness endures. TalkShopLive, Zeta-Jones’s e-commerce platform of choice, is the kind of website that will present a photo of a suspiciously white-toothed person, label it “Ken Lindner” and just assume that a) you know who that is and b) you might be moved to buy something from him. (Google advises: “Mario Lopez’s Longtime Agent.”) And yet since its 2018 inception, legitimate stars with product to move — like the memoir-slingers Matthew McConaughey and Dolly Parton — have peacefully coexisted with influencers calling themselves things like Nurse Georgie and the Gentlemen of Crypto. Suggesting that there is some cynical calculation to these kinds of gambits is seen as an unsophisticated, even offensive, analysis. “I didn’t ‘sell out’ by making my dreams come true,” Chrissy Teigen said on Twitter last year when her honor was impugned over Cravings, her range of cookbooks and cookware synced with a branded Instagram account featuring cheese appreciation posts and a meme of Hulk Hogan wrestling a sourdough loaf. The internet rallied to Teigen’s defense.

The consumerist mode of celebrity performance has grown more acceptable as it’s become increasingly clear that Hollywood work is not always so enviable, especially for women. Framing the movie business as an artistic calling is the thing that now feels false. Part of the appeal of a figure like Teigen is her unapologetic posture toward her work. She is not abashedly cashing in on the excess value created by her high-minded art; she is just trying very hard to sell things.

Still, this hand can be overplayed. This month, Teigen released a line of household cleaning products with the Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner, and the backlash to their cringey launch videos was so abrupt that Teigen nuked her Twitter account, calling its users “mean.” There was, perhaps, a miscalculation in the video’s satirical style: In poking fun at the whole genre of celebrity branding, she presented herself as uncharacteristically insincere.

When Zeta-Jones hit the virtual stage of TalkShopLive, I found myself unexpectedly delighted by her apparent ease in this new mode. She could not have appeared more earnestly enthused about the whole deal. Zeta-Jones delivered an hourlong parasocial monologue from her vast kitchenscape, spinning out vaguely coffee-related anecdotes. At one point she referred to her former self, wonderfully, as “ingénue me in gay Paree.” Fans filed into the chat rolling down the side of the screen — “Hi lovely Catherine,” “hi beautiful,” “hi from Vienna.” TalkShopLive emphasizes the seamlessness of its sales technology, and when I clicked on the big red “BUY” button, the live feed of Zeta-Jones followed me into the virtual shopping aisle, so I barely needed to break eye contact with her as I typed in my credit card information.

Soon a bag of Ultimate Zeta Blend hit my doorstep. The handsome matte package described the beans as “full-bodied” with a “smooth, citruslike finish.” The grounds percolated through my Mr. Coffee. I pulled the Casa Zeta Jones-branded mug to my lips. It tasted, at least, “citruslike.” When the caffeine hit my bloodstream, Zeta-Jones had successfully transferred her aura directly into my brain.

I can’t confidently say that because Zeta-Jones herself sniffed these beans at some point on the production line, there was anything appreciably Zeta-Jonesy about the coffee, but I did know for sure that I had held up my end of the bargain: My money had made its way into her pocket. Somewhere along the way, the promise of the celebrity endorsement had inverted. I didn’t buy the product because a celebrity supported it; I bought the product to support the celebrity. I wanted to like Catherine’s coffee so badly, and when I didn’t, I felt disappointed not in her but in myself. I felt, somehow, like I had let her down.

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