The Nonuser Celebrity Endorser

Topic: Deceptive Advertising

Characters: Annie, Copywriter for Laird & Laird Advertising; Lance Willard, Well-known and popular Hollywood movie star Victor, President of Laird & Laird Advertising


Annie, copywriter for Laird & Laird (L&L) Advertising, has just been assigned the Bud’s Best (BB) bacon account. She is tickled pink, because she knows that Bud’s Best has just signed a one-year contract to use Lance Willard as a celebrity endorser. Lance is a well known, well loved, young, handsome, and vibrant Hollywood movie star who specializes in action drama roles. Victor, President of L&L, tells Annie that she will be writing commercials using Lance in the role of giving product testimonials. Victor explains to Annie that this endorsement is a testimonial given by a celebrity rather than an average consumer. He tells her that Lance has signed an affidavit swearing that he is a bona fide user of the product, as is legally required. The TV commercials featuring Lance, explains Victor, should feature Lance testifying as to the quality, value, and tastiness of the bacon. Victor suggests that this will take some good acting on Lance’s part, since he has just recently become a vegetarian. Annie wonders whether a testimonial by Lance might not be dishonest, but she says nothing to Victor since she doesn’t want to blow her opportunity to meet Lance in person. She figures she can get all of the details later from Lance.

Lance turns out to be as charming in person as he is on the silver screen. After some small talk, Annie decides to query Lance about his experience with Bud’s Best. Lance explains that he has had personal experience with the product, as is legally required for a testimonial. He tells her that he has done many celebrity endorsements in the past and knows that the American Advertising Federation’s “Advertising Principles of American Business” state that “advertising containing testimonials shall be limited to those of competent witnesses who are reflecting a real and honest opinion or experience” and that as long as the endorser’s comments are based on verifiable personal use, the message cannot be challenged as deceptive. In fact, he says, it has been his favorite brand of bacon ever since he was a small child, and bacon and eggs were his favorite and most frequently consumed breakfast until about a month ago when he became a vegetarian for health reasons. Lance tells Annie that a recent checkup by his physician revealed that his cholesterol level was 200–in the danger zone. His doctor had warned Lance to cut down on high cholesterol foods, such as bacon and eggs. Lance decided to go even further and abstain from meat since so many meats are high in cholesterol.

Annie asks Lance diplomatically whether he feels comfortable testifying about how much he likes Bud’s Best bacon when he no longer uses the product. Lance replies that his conscience is clean. He has discussed the legalities with Victor, who told him that technically it was okay for him to discuss his past enjoyment of the product. After all, Lance reminds Annie, the selling points he would discuss in the commercials would be the bacon’s quality, value, and good taste. Lance explains that in his view, as far as bacon goes, Bud’s Best is second to none along these criteria. He tells Annie that nothing regarding the bacon’s healthiness, or lack thereof, will be mentioned. As long as people are going to eat bacon, Lance asserts, they might as well eat Bud’s Best.

Annie thinks that Lance might have a point, but she isn’t sure. She doesn’t want to rock the boat at this point with either Lance or Victor, for she really wants to work with Lance on the shoot. She thinks she’d better just give it some more thought and prayer for the time being.

Author: Geoffrey P. Lantos, Associate Professor of Marketing, Stonehill College

What Are the Relevant Facts?

  1. Lance Willard, popular Hollywood movie star, has signed a one-year contract with Bud’s Best (BB) bacon to give product testimonials (known as celebrity endorsements when given by celebrities).
  2. Annie, a copywriter for Laird and Laird (L&L) Advertising, has been assigned to the BB account.
  3. Victor, President of L&L, explains to Annie that Victor has signed an affidavit swearing that he is a bona fide user of BB bacon.
  4. Although Lance has plenty of personal experience with BB bacon, as is legally required for him to give a personal testimonial, and he has always preferred BB to any other brand of bacon, Lance has recently become a vegetarian.
  5. Lance tells Annie that as long as the endorser’s comments are based on verifiable personal experience, the message cannot be challenged as deceptive.
  6. Bacon is a food high in cholesterol, which could have contributed to Lance’s high cholesterol count and his doctor’s warning to cut down on high cholesterol foods.
  7. Victor has told Lance that technically it is okay for him to discuss in commercials his past enjoyment of BB bacon.
  8. Lance will not discuss the health issues involved-­only the bacon’s quality, value, and good taste.
  9. Lance believes that, health issues aside, BB bacon is superior along these dimensions to other bacon brands.
  10. Annie has reservations about doing the copywriting for commercials using Lance as a celebrity endorser since, for health reasons, he no longer consumes the product.

What Are the Ethical Issues?

  1. Is it deceptive to use Lance as a celebrity endorser given that, although in the past he used and preferred the product, he no longer does because he believes it is unhealthy?
  2. Is it ethical to promote a product which potentially poses a health hazard to at least some consumers?
  3. Would promoting this brand increase consumption of an unhealthy product or merely help shift brand

preferences among current consumers of the product?

  1. Is it acceptable to restrict the discussion in the ads to the product’s quality, value, and taste while neglecting the health issue (e.g., should some sort of disclaimer be used)? Is it a case of incomplete disclosure?
  2. How can Annie resolve the dilemma caused by the clash between her personal view as to what is honest, the nature of the campaign, and what the law apparently allows?
  3. Is a copywriter obligated to abide by her superior’s judgment?
  4. Is the reputation of L&L threatened because of Lance’s vegetarianism?

Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?

  1. What is the appropriate level of analysis (systemic, corporate, individual) to use in identifying the primary stakeholders?
  • Annie
  • Lance
  • Victor
  • The target audience for the advertising campaign
  • L&L
  • American Advertising Federation
  1. What are Annie’s responsibilities to each stakeholder?

What Are the Possible Alternatives?

  1. Annie could refuse to continue to work on the campaign.
  2. Annie could be asked to be reassigned to another account whose product poses no health hazards.
  3. Annie could agree to go to work on the campaign as proposed.
  4. Annie could suggest an alternative approach using Lance which doesn’t suggest that he has ever personally used the product.
  5. Annie could argue for dropping use of Lance in the campaign altogether.

What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?

  • Ask questions based on a “utilitarian” perspective (costs and benefits). For example:
  1. Which possible alternative would provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number?
  1. Which stakeholders carry the greatest burden if Annie refuses to work on the campaign as planned?
  2. Which alternative(s) demonstrate a fair process? A fair outcome?
  3. How would costs be measured in this vignette?
  4. Do the benefits of being consistent with your personal values outweigh the costs of doing potentially less effective advertising (perhaps without Lance) or of potentially displeasing the client?
  • Ask questions based on a “rights” perspective. For example:
  1. What does each stakeholder have the right to expect?
  2. Which alternatives would you not want imposed on you if you were Annie? Lance? Victor? A member of the target audience? The client?
  3. What are Lance’s and the client’s rights, given that they have signed a contract?
  4. Does Annie have a right to protest?
  • Ask questions based on a “justice” perspective (benefits and burdens). For example:
  1. Which alternative distributes the benefits and burdens most fairly among the stakeholders?

What Are the Practical Constraints?

  1. Annie might not consider disagreeing with her superior to be a viable option from the perspectives of her job at L&L as well as her career.
  2. If Annie refuses to go along, another copywriter will probably be assigned to do the campaign anyway.
  3. Victor might overrule any decision Annie makes to alter the campaign anyway.
  4. Legally, it might be impossible to verify Lance’s experience as a bona fide user.

What Actions Should Be Taken?

  1. What action steps should Annie take?
  2. Which alternative should she choose? Why?
  3. Which alternative would you choose if you were in Annie’s position? Why?
  4. Which ethical theories (utilitarian, rights, justice) make the most sense to you as they relate to this situation?