Have you ever been swayed to purchase a product because you saw one of your favorite celebrities promoting it either on TV, online, an in-store advertisement, or on the product itself? Probably so. In fact, marketed properly, a celebrity endorsement for a product can go a long way in creating a connection with a company’s target audience, building trust, and forming a profitable relationship.
But what happens when a celebrity is used to promote a product they’ve never used—or perhaps, never even heard of? Due to the serious legal ramifications of doing something like this, you might initially think that this type of fraud is few and far between. However, the truth is that this is a widespread problem, not only in the U.S., but also in burgeoning economies such as China and India.
As such, in this article we’ll briefly explore two types of misrepresented celebrity endorsements: 1) Those where celebrities’ likenesses are used without their knowledge or consent to promote products they’ve likely never heard of, and 2) those where celebrities are paid for their endorsements of products they don’t use. In either instance, the common thread is that the power of celebrity can be used to deceive consumers into purchasing products.
With this in mind, let’s dig in and take a closer look at the problem, and what you can do to avoid being duped by fake celebrity endorsements.
Fake (Read: Illegal) Celebrity Endorsements
From Barack Obama and Princess Diana, to Jessica Simpson and the Kardashian sisters, fake celebrity endorsements are rampant in today’s marketplace. Perhaps the most widely publicized recent example of this is Dr. Oz, whose likeness has been used to promote a wide variety of nutritional supplements from companies he’s never heard of. In fact, as far back as 2012, Dr. Oz realized that this was fast becoming a problem, which he made sure to outline in a blog post on his website. At that time, he enlisted the help of Amazon and Facebook to remove any fake posts, advertisements, and websites from their sites that used his image or written endorsement without his permission.
However, despite the immense amount of work he and his legal team went through to get the ball rolling, he recently flew to San Diego to confront nutritional supplements manufacturer Tarr, who had been using Dr. Oz’s image—and even several of his videos—to promote their Garcinia Cambogia supplements. And this problem isn’t just focused on American celebrities either, as this Daily Mail article outlined when a company called Slimzene used pictures of Adele, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Victoria Beckham and claimed they had used their products to lose unrealistic amounts of weight.
Although big names like the above are usually the primary targets for scammers, the reality is that it doesn’t just apply to A-list celebrities anymore. This is something that Tim Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Work Week, recently found out when one of his Twitter followers asked him if he had endorsed a sales program offered by a shady-looking company based out of Illinois. Tim is considered a guru by many for those looking to earn money doing something they love, as are many of the other industry specialists named in the letter, including Dan Kennedy, Bob Bly, Yanik Silver, and more—none of which were legitimate endorsements.
.@AnnJamieson2 No, it's a scam. I have nothing to do with them. Can you please send me a screenshot or image? Need names, addresses, etc.— Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) September 29, 2014
The point here is that, despite the immense amount of legal and monetary trouble a fake celebrity endorsement can potentially cause a company, the truth is that the benefits far outweigh the risks. For example, Canadian Jesse Willms, who was sued by Oprah Winfrey (in addition to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Microsoft) for using her image to promote his dubious nutritional supplements, ultimately walked away from the whole ordeal after paying a hefty fine, but was never actually charged with a crime. In the mean time, Mr. Willms made hundreds of millions of dollars, and is already building a new empire.
But why is this? While using a celebrity’s image to promote a product without their consent is technically considered copyright infringement, the lines are blurred between precisely what’s illegal and what isn’t. On top of this, it can often prove nearly impossible to track down the parties responsible for the infringement—and even if this occurs, it can take an enormous amount of effort, time, and money to work through the legal system to shut these companies down. And as we noted with the Jesse Willms example, they can then turn around and begin operating under a new name within days, and the cycle starts all over again.
Celebrities Who Endorse Products without Ever Having Used Them
Another big problem—albeit a much less rampant one—relates to celebrities who endorse products they don’t use themselves. But the fact is that many of the less-than-scrupulous manufacturers don’t really care whether or not a celebrity has tried their products, or even if they have, whether or not they like them in the first place. Instead, these companies only care whether or not the celebrity “speaks” to their target audience and aligns with their lifestyles, which ultimately translates into increased sales.
For example, one of the most recent examples of this is Jessica Simpson, who partnered with the Tarant group to create an inexpensive line of jeans called Princy. However, these jeans were so cheaply made that she refused to wear them herself, and even publicly stated that she preferred another line of jeans from a different manufacturer. While she ultimately settled out of court for failing to live up to her end of the bargain, her clothes have gone on to pull in more than $700 million. As we mentioned above, while there are often steep financial penalties to falsely endorsing a product (whether knowingly or otherwise), it’s often the case that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
With this in mind, according to a 2011 article from Forbes, consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to spotting endorsements from celebrities who don’t actually use the product they’re helping to sell. As a result, more and more of the largest companies only feature celebrities who actually use their products.
In other words, we’ve recently moved into an age where building trust with an audience is more important that featuring a celebrity who says, “Buy this product.” In fact, as this article and study show, celebrity endorsements result in very little difference from multiple marketing perspectives. However, it does help build brand identity, although this doesn’t necessarily translate into a greater volume of sales.
How You Can Identify a Fake Celebrity Endorsement, and Why You Should Care
Now that you know more about the most common types of fake celebrity endorsements, how can you avoid handing over your hard-earned money to these dishonest companies in the first place? After all, celebrities form their own companies all the time—often in industries they have zero prior experience in, whether it’s fashion, perfume, beauty, jewelry, or a whole host of other products—so it can be truly difficult to immediately tell whether or not they’re legitimately endorsing a product.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “What’s the harm in purchasing one of these products?” The truth is that, by purchasing products that use fake celebrity endorsements, you’re essentially rewarding these companies for their illegal activities, and giving them a greater incentive to keep on doing it.
With this in mind, here are a couple tips that you can use to help discern the difference between a real celebrity endorsement and a fake one:
Tip #1: Avoid Products that Use the Phrase “As Seen On…”
Although companies should never use a celebrity’s image without their consent, some will try to cover their tracks by saying something along the lines of, “As seen on Dr. Oz,” or “As aired during Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” However, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “In reviewing their [e.g. the company’s] ads, advertisers should adopt the perspective of a reasonable consumer. They also should assume that consumers don’t read an entire website or online screen, just as they don’t read every word on a printed page. Disclosures should be placed as close as possible to the claim they qualify.” What this means is that, by placing the verbiage, “As seen on,” less-than-scrupulous marketers are technically following the letter of the law, while also exploiting a very gray area.
A screenshot of a website using Dr. Oz's likeness without his consent. Notice the disclaimer on the bottom of the video.
The solution? Avoid purchasing products that use this “As seen on [TV program]” verbiage, because it’s almost always the case that they’re using the celebrity’s likeness without their consent. This is because there’s no reason to include this wording if the celebrity legitimately endorses the product.
Tip #2: Look for Quality Packaging
Next, keep a keen eye out for quality product packaging. This is because less-than-scrupulous companies, especially those originating from overseas, will often release hastily-produced packaging with poor Photoshop work, misspelled words, and the like. The truth is that legitimate companies often spend millions of dollars, not only on their celebrity endorsements, but also on marketing these products to their customers, which typically results in high production value.
Tip #3: Contact the Company
Finally, if you’re really intent on learning whether or not a celebrity has legitimately endorsed a product you’re thinking about purchasing, call the company directly and ask if their product has been officially endorsed by them. If the company representative doesn’t give you an immediate “Yes” and seems to skirt around the issue, you can be fairly certain they haven’t receive permission from the celebrity to use their likeness.
Tell Us Your Story!
Do you have experience with fake celebrity product endorsements? If so, do you have any tips you’d like to share that can help others avoid them in the first place? Tell the world about it by leaving a comment below!