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Friday, March 7, 2014

Celebrity Endorsements: Commerce, Credibility, and Cataloguing

One of the mixed joys of being the SIRIS cataloguing coordinator/editor for the NMAH Archives Center is the “opportunity” to correct and enhance old records, many of them entered by interns and volunteers in connection with scanning projects.  It isn’t easy to distinguish a preliminary catalog record intended for later enhancement from a simply incomplete, incorrect, or misleading description.  In the case of images, whether photographic or hand-rendered, and photomechanical reproductions from such originals, one fundamental issue for me is the need for a description of both the image being scanned and the object on which the image resides.  This might mean simply indicating the support for a photograph (e.g., paper, glass, film), or it might require a description or name for an object upon or in which an image has been painted, printed, or otherwise applied.  Sometimes I discover that someone scanned and catalogued an image from a calendar or book without naming the object containing the image.  Some attempt should be made to describe the object containing the image, not merely the pictorial image.  To me, this is a more fundamental step than searching for Library of Congress authority terms for tagging.  I think an accurate, concise MARC 245 field is a thing of beauty!

Point-of-purchase display card for Pears' Soap, with portrait of actress Mary Anderson, 1885.
Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, NMAH

Recently I encountered an intriguing SIRIS record for a soap advertisement in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.  Warshaw soap ads were scanned some years ago in connection with our Ivory Soap Collection of soap advertising.  These collections include advertisements for other soap brands for comparison, including the nineteenth-century Pears’ Soap.  The advertisements take a variety of forms, although the majority were printed in magazines, so the artifact may be a tear sheet.  Some items, however, are trade cards and advertisements intended for display in stores, so they may consist of card stock or other sturdy stuff, rather than flimsy magazine pages.  The Ivory Soap Collection and the soap advertisements in the Warshaw Collection can tell us not only how soap and cosmetic products were advertised in mass-distribution print media, but they also contain examples of how products were advertised inside stores to attract shoppers actively involved in decision-making about their purchases.  If an advertising card large enough to attract attention is placed with products near the establishment’s cash register, the Art and Architecture Thesaurus calls it a “point-of-purchase display,” and Library of Congress Subject Headings calls it an example of “Advertising, Point-of-sale.”  The concept, of course, is that an alluring display advertisement near the cash register (with or without the product itself, which merely needs to be accessible to the cashier) can encourage the customer to make an impulse purchase.  To be effective, point-of-purchase displays need to be timely, attractive, imaginative, clever, or some combination thereof, and customers must be made to feel that the product is desirable.  The display might be text only, or it might bear some sort of image.

One of the most effective types of advertising, as we know from contemporary media, is the use of celebrity endorsements.  The claim that a celebrity uses or recommends a product can attract and intrigue customers, especially loyal fans.  Even if a jaded public doesn’t believe the celebrity’s claim to use the product, a connection is established in potential customers’ brains, identifying a “star” with the product.  Such identification helps customers remember the product, which they might initially purchase simply out of amusement.  Embodied in the object shown here is the confluence of two strategems of advertising psychology—(a) attracting the customer’s attention at the cash register to purchase another item, and (b) appealing to endorsements by glamorous or influential celebrities to suggest that the product might help make the customer as attractive, wealthy, or influential as the celebrity.

It’s interesting that this particular celebrity endorsement served as a point-of-purchase advertisement, but the majority of such endorsements were created for various media, especially magazines and newspapers, then later radio and television—to attract customers into stores and markets.  Naturally, younger people may be totally unfamiliar with the names and faces of movie, radio, and television “stars” and celebrities from earlier generations, but how many ancient icons of popular culture can we reasonably expect them to remember?

When I finally edited the catalog record for this item, years had elapsed.  I looked at the image linked to the record, and it was clear that this reproduction of a painted portrait of a woman represented a specific famous person, and that this was an example of a celebrity endorsement of Pears’ soap (motto at lower left: “Pears Soap / The Very Best”).  I didn’t recognize the face, nor could I make out the name at the lower right, which appeared to be the signature of the subject, not the artist.  I didn’t need to look far for a transcription of the name.  It appears, along with other brief testimonials with signatures, on the verso of the card.  At the top of the list Mary Anderson is quoted as saying, “I find Pears Soap the very best,” followed by the same signature that appears on the image side of the card.  Ironically, the cataloguer knew the names Lillie Langtry and Henry Ward Beecher, whose testimonials appear under Ms. Anderson’s, and thought their names were worth entering into the record as MARC 600 fields for personal names as subject, but didn’t notice that the signature associated with Mary Anderson’s name matched the signature under the portrait.

I had no idea who Mary Anderson was.  I almost didn’t Google her on the assumption that “Mary Anderson” must be one of the most common names on the face of the earth.  On second thought, I tried, and a link for “Mary Anderson (actress, born 1859)” miraculously appeared on the first page of hits.  It led me to a Wikipedia entry, happily illustrated with the very profile portrait photograph from which I believe the advertisement portrait was painted.  She appears to be more delicately attractive in the photograph than in the painting.  She was a popular, celebrated stage actress who later appeared in silent films and who led a fascinating life that could inspire a book (she wrote two memoirs), a play, or a movie.  I never know what tangents “editing” SIRIS records may lead me on.  Perhaps I was too diverted by Mary Anderson’s life story, but at least her name now appears in the catalog record for retrieval.  I’m confident that someone will soon have a need for a portrait of her and will locate this image.
Many of the soap advertisements in our collections appeal to the public’s devotion to the cult of celebrity embodied by the “stars” whose beauty or charisma is so alluring.  At the same time, many of these ads include appeals to logic or common sense.  While Henry Ward Beecher’s statement, “I am willing to stand by every word in favor of it I ever uttered,” is amusingly pompous, Mary Anderson’s pronouncement of Pears’ Soap as “the very best” seems to carry weight: She is an actress, constantly in the limelight, who needs a soap that will not only cleanse her skin but will be kind to her complexion.  If a famous actress recommends a particular soap, women might well sit up and take notice.  After all, her livelihood depends partly on beauty products, and one would expect her to be discerning about soap—she must know what she’s talking about and her endorsement must be trustworthy.

Similarly, when a famous singer endorsed a particular brand of cigarettes decades later, the public might naturally assume that a vocalist would know not to abuse his or her throat and voice and accept the star’s presumably informed and tested choice.  If a crooner like Snooky Lanson could smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes (according to an ad in the Sandra and Gary Baden Collection of Celebrity Endorsements in Advertising), they must be gentle on the throat, right?  A professional singer wouldn’t risk a coughing fit on live television, would he?  (Lanson was a regular on the live show “Your Hit Parade” in the 1950s.)

The use of celebrity endorsements has waxed and waned over the years.  Some say Josiah Wedgwood was the first to use such an endorsement in the 1760s, by advertising his royal warrant, certifying that the British royal family was a regular customer of his ceramic products.  In the 21st century the phrase “by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” is considered a benchmark of quality.  It functions as a celebrity endorsement, although one does not see photographs of Queen Elizabeth personally utilizing the product or proclaiming its virtues.  The message is far more subtle, but arguably more reliable.  The royal warrant signifies that the royal family actually purchases the product or hires the service, yet there is no appeal to exclusivity, no vulgar, direct comparison to competing products or services.  There is merely the proof of purchase which the phrase “by appointment to” elegantly signifies.  It means simply “we buy it, and you know how fussy we can be.”

Indeed, the personalized celebrity endorsements with which we are familiar sometimes leave a funny taste in our mouths.  We don’t always trust the movie, television, and recording stars and their endorsements, as we sometimes suspect that many of them will do anything for money and we don’t honestly believe their enthusiasm over the consumer products they hype—they’re actors, after all.  In the 21st century we’re too sophisticated to really believe in endorsements--aren’t we?  They’re just another form of entertainment, and stars’ names are associated with certain products just to raise visibility and name recognition, not necessarily to convince consumers of celebrities’ heartfelt enthusiasm and brand loyalty.  There currently seems to be a trend away from celebrity endorsements, as some authors suggest that they are not cost-effective, and businesses are jittery about star misbehavior as well, having found that sales sometimes plummet when their spokespersons become involved in scandals.

Nevertheless, I still fervently want to believe that the famous actress Mary Anderson actually used Pears’ Soap in the late nineteenth century and found it superior, and now her name has been reunited with her endorsement.  As you may know, Pears’ soap is still manufactured and is still distinctive.  It was the world’s first registered brand and is therefore the world’s oldest continuously existing brand.  According to Wikipedia, “Lillie Langtry’s famous ivory complexion brought her income as the first woman to endorse a commercial product, advertising Pears Soap.”  And Mary Anderson soon followed.

(No, I’m not endorsing Pears soap.  Never tried it.)

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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