Are Celebrities Good for Affiliate Business?

by Lisa Picarille on November 9, 2010

I still can’t seem to shake some questions that arose for me after attending a ShareASale ThinkTank in Half Moon Bay last month. The two-day annual conference was great. I won’t go over all the details since Shawn Collins did such a great job recapping the event. Instead, I want to get into one of the sessions I attended and some thoughts I came away with.

I was excited to sit in on a session about pop culture and trends led by David Zelkin and Jessica Sander of ShareASale. It really got me thinking. Plus, I am doing a panel at Affiliate Summit West 2011 on trend spotting with Scott Jangro, Stephanie Lichtenstein and Lisa Riolo, so I was curious as to what this ThinkTank session would cover. At my upcoming session we are planning to talk about how to spot trends and then monetize them. The session at ThinkTank was focused on pop culture and trends that merchants are already capitalizing on and how they share that with their affiliates.

Although, there were a lot of trends - music, design, and more - discussed in the ThinkTank session, it’s clear for merchants; there is no bigger trend than celebrity.

Leveraging a celebrity is great for a merchant. It really does help them sell products. However, I ‘m curious of the implications and issues that might arise if affiliates begin to rely heavily on celebrity as part of their online marketing efforts.

I love that merchants are looking for new content to provide affiliates. But I think that when it involves celebrities they may need to offer affiliates some guidelines. I’m wondering if in some cases it may necessitate having usage of these materials spelled out more clearly in the terms and conditions (T&C’s).

Using celebrities or leveraging star power is not all that new. For years consumers been bombarded with the power of celebrities and marketing. There have been direct endorsements - like Tiger Woods and Nike and indirect ones like when celebrities provide voiceovers for commercials like Donald Sutherland has been doing for decades. There’s also the rise in popularity of magazines like InStyle that feature products and let the public know that this or that A-lister bought that product or was seen wearing a certain a shoe, or scarf or dress.

Here’s an example of how I think relying on celebrities could be a potential issue: XYZ merchant has a body lotion that is used by an A-List nearly 50’s glamorous female celeb. That celebrity has no formal relationship with the merchant, but the celebrity likes the product and has purchased it in the past. Of course, the merchant is happy to send gift baskets or free samples of new products to that celeb as well.

Let’s say an affiliate with that merchant uses a photo or information (provided by the merchant) about that celeb’s association with the product. It could be as innocuous as the celebrity holding the product. The affiliate posts the content on their site saying the product is used by that celebrity. No problem.

Stick with me here. Let’s say another affiliate has a site focusing on over-50 females and anti-aging products. Now that affiliate uses the same photo but changes the copy slightly to spice it up and possibly ends up implying that the particular star keeps young and glamorous by using the lotion from XYZ merchant. Well, making that small leap of inference might be okay but then again it might not.

Here’s where there could be a potential problems. What if the celebrity has a formal and exclusive deal to only promote Cover Girl or Revlon as their “anti-aging” solution of choice?

In that case, the affiliate might find themselves in the cross hairs of the brand or the celebrity (most of whom are notoriously controlling – and litigious - about their images and implied endorsements).

However, in the example above, the affiliate didn’t technically do anything wrong. It’s highly unlikely that the terms and conditions they signed with the merchant accounted for this misstep or spelled it out specifically. So, the affiliate is not violating anything. Or are they?

A much more blatant case of this misrepresentation was used by the Federal Trade Commission to develop disclosure and endorsement guidelines stating that celebrities must use the products they endorse and bloggers must disclose if they are making money from the company they are promoting. The case involved Oprah and Dr. Oz and use of their images to falsely claim they promoted and endorsed acai berry products including diet pills and juices. Oprah and Dr. OZ sued more than 50 parties associated with making such false claims.

But what I’m highlighting here are not blatantly false attempts by less than reputable affiliates to convince visitors that mega-celebs love acai berry products, but rather small tweaks to copy that could be misread as an endorsement of a product. Even something this seemingly benign could potentially damage the informal relationship established between the celebrity and the merchant. It could also raise issues with the FTC

Of course, merchants are always taking a risk that affiliates might step outside of their messaging – with or without celebrities in the equation. However, a scenario involving a celebrity could be a little more troublesome for all parties. While I encourage affiliates to be creative to help promote their sites and sell the merchant’s products, I’m guessing there is likely to be a rise in “issues” surrounding celebrities, use of their images and perceived endorsements. This can all be avoided through good communication with affiliates and guidelines are clearly laid out by merchants.

Just thinking out loud….what are your thoughts on this?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lisa Riolo November 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

As you mentioned, the key to avoiding legal issues is having and upholding brand usage language and promotional guidelines.

No question that celebs attract attention and influence us — which makes their presence valuable to marketers. The risk of not getting the legal issues right seems too high. What about leveraging celebrities to help build the media partner’s brand?

An idea with potential?

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