A First Step to Identify the Meaning in Celebrity Endorsers

ABSTRACT - Typical studies on celebrity endorsement have focused on source credibility and source attractiveness rather than symbolic properties of the celebrity endorser or associated "meaning movement." This study uses a response elicitation format, with a celebrity endorser, Cher, a celebrity endorsed product, Scandinavian Health Spas, and a non-endorsed product, bath towels, as stimuli to identify the meaning in celebrity endorsers and to document the transfer of meaning from endorser to product. Although a "first step," the results are encouraging.


Lynn Langmeyer and Mary Walker (1991) ,"A First Step to Identify the Meaning in Celebrity Endorsers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 364-371.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 364-371


Lynn Langmeyer, Northern Kentucky University

Mary Walker, Xavier University


Typical studies on celebrity endorsement have focused on source credibility and source attractiveness rather than symbolic properties of the celebrity endorser or associated "meaning movement." This study uses a response elicitation format, with a celebrity endorser, Cher, a celebrity endorsed product, Scandinavian Health Spas, and a non-endorsed product, bath towels, as stimuli to identify the meaning in celebrity endorsers and to document the transfer of meaning from endorser to product. Although a "first step," the results are encouraging.


It has been proposed by McCracken (1986, 1988, 1989) and other (e.g., Atkin and Block 1983; Holman 1980; Levy 1959; Mick 1986; O'Guinn et. al. 1989; Sherry and McGrath 1989; Stern 1988; Umiker-Sebeok 1981), that celebrity endorsers embody symbolic meanings; meanings elicited by a person, place or thing that go beyond those directly contained in themselves. Celebrity endorsers pass on their symbolic meanings and acquired associations to the products they endorse. Over time, the cultivation analysis proponents hypothesize (e.g., Gerbner et. al. 1977), the symbolic meanings are passed on to the consumer; the product is uniquely differentiated and its perceived value is infinitely enhanced. If the actual process operates as the model proposes, then the increase in the use of celebrity endorsers (Levin 1988; Sherman 1985) makes sense. It has been difficult, however, to test and support the celebrity endorser effect; what have been tested are "pieces" of the process and what has been found leaves important questions still unanswered. This investigation was undertaken to address the most basic question in the endorsement process: can symbolic meanings embodied in a celebrity be identified and once identified can they be classified and categorized? Second, if meanings can be classified and categorized, then can such classifications and categorizations be used to understand the process by which symbolic meaning is transferred?

Typical studies on celebrity endorsement have focused on two social psychological aspect of the process: source credibility and source attractiveness. The source models, as McCracken (1989) labels them, trace their history to the early Yale communication studies of Hovland and Weiss (195152) and the early studies on source attractiveness reported by McGuire in his 1985 review article. The models rest on the assumption that the effectiveness of a message depends on certain characteristics of he message source and past studies have identified characteristics, such as physical attractiveness and credibility, that tend to increase the persuasiveness of a message.

McCracken (1989) notes that, although these models are important to our understanding the endorsement process, the "research itself is littered with puzzles and peculiarities the source models cannot explain" (McCracken 1989, p. 311). Furthermore, the endorsement process depends upon the symbolic properties of the celebrity endorser and therefore an understanding of "meaning movement" is essential. Traditional approaches tend not to provide such direction.

For example, a puzzle identified by Kamins (1990) is that "physical attractiveness of the sources does not always enhance measures of attitudes change toward issues, products, and ad-based evaluations." He proposes the "match-up" hypothesis as the solution (Kahle and Homer 1985) and then using a self-report multiple choice-type scale, demonstrates that Tom Selleck, as a celebrity endorser for an "attractiveness-related product" (luxury car), compared to Telly Savalas as a celebrity endorser for the same product, enhanced measures of spokesperson credibility and attitude toward an ad. No differences in those measures were found for the attractiveness-unrelated product (home computer). Kamins' study (1990), although technically more than adequate and appropriate, does not increase our understanding the "meaning movement" of Selleck's physical attractiveness -- one of his symbolic meanings as a celebrity endorser. What meanings are passed on to the product, enhance spokesperson measures, and thereby make Selleck a better "matchup" than Savalas with a luxury car? That seems to be the underlying puzzle needing a solution.

McCracken (1989) states "we know that each role, event, or accomplishment in the career of the celebrity changes the meanings of the celebrity, but we do not know precisely how this takes place ... Nor do we know how meanings transfer from one to the other ... We need an instrument that allows us to determine methodologically the meanings that adhere in celebrities. We know that the meanings that exist in celebrities are various, but we have yet to devise an instrument that allows us to detect and survey these meanings" (p. 319). This study is an exploratory step in devising that instrument. We chose to emphasize a "qualitative" rather than "quantitative" direction in our study because it seems a better match for investigating symbolic meanings.


Because a celebrity endorser is defined as "an individual who enjoys public recognition and who uses this recognition on behalf of a consumer good by appearing with it in an advertisement" (McCracken 1989, p. 310), our first step was to determine if celebrity/product associations are easily recalled. Rather than present our respondents with a recognition check-list which would not reveal easily remembered associations, we asked our respondents, undergraduate business students (most of whom were 18 to 34 year-olds) to "please give us as many celebrity/product pairs as you can recall." The free elicitation approach has been used successfully in similar studies.

The first step generated 93 celebrity/product pairs with frequencies ranging from a high of 29 for Boomer Esiason and Diet Coke or Hanes and 28 for Bill Cosby and Jello, to lows of single mentions for Santa Claus and Oreo Cookies and Jay Leno and Doritos. From this list of 93 pairs, we selected three frequently mentioned pairs to-use in our pilot test for the working of the instrument. It was difficult to identify specific appropriate and effective open-ended question rhetoric from previous studies that would give us the desired quality of responses in terms of content; not many studies have investigated this topic other than on a conceptual level (McCracken 1989) or using "positivist" rather than "interpretive" approaches (e.g., Kamins 1990). We considered and discarded phrases such as "symbolic meanings" and symbolic properties" as jargonized and unnecessarily obtuse. We eventually settled on the following directions to question respondents on already existing celebrity/endorser pairs:

"Please describe the meaning each celebrity has for you when he/she advertises the indicated product."

The pairs used were Cher and Scandinavian Health Spas, Boomer Esiason and Hanes Underwear for Men, and Bill Cosby and Jello Pudding.

In the review of literature and research, it became apparent that, conceptually, endorsed products elicit associations that go beyond those directly contained in the stimuli per se -- they acquire conscious or unconscious associations that are linked to the endorser. If this assumption is true, then what about non-endorsed products? The quality and quantity of symbolic meanings in nonendorsed products should be identifiably different than that in endorsed products. Therefore, in addition to identifying the symbolic meanings in products that are currently associated with celebrity endorsers, we wanted to determine if respondents could describe the symbolic meanings they would want a celebrity endorser to possess to "pass on" to a non-endorsed product. For this purpose, we asked the following"

"Please describe the celebrity that you would want to see advertising bath towels."

The results of the pilot indicated that the directions were insufficient and unclear; we had to "interview" the respondents to obtain responses we could use because they had trouble knowing what we were asking. We determined from OUT interviews that the words "communicate" and "associate" seemed to be the best elicitors of symbolic meanings. We also determined from our interviews that some "priming of the pump was helpful in getting respondents to think about the advertisements.

For the third step, then, we developed an introduction and instructions for the instrument to "set the stage" for the questions and tested the effectiveness of "communicate" and "associate" for response generation. The two parts of the instrument and the test of two elicitors created four versions of the instrument. The Cher/Scandinavian Health Spa pairing was the most successful of the three pairings in generating responses in the pilot, and so we continued to use it in all four versions. The bath towel category elicited high content responses and was also continued in all four versions. The four versions of the instrument had the same instructions for the paired meanings sections and the un-endorsed meanings section. For the paired meanings section introduction respondents were told: 'We are interested in how celebrities who advertise particular products are perceived by the audience. There are no right or wrong answers. Ignore.for the purpose of this study what you think the advertiser may have intended. We are interested in your personal opinions and feelings and ideas. Please read the directions carefully and respond in as much detail as you can."

For the un-endorsed meanings section introduction, the same directions were used except respondents were informed that we were "interested in what types of celebrities would be good endorsers for certain types of products."

The specific question for the paired meanings was as follows: "Think about the last time you saw Cher advertise Scandinavian health Spas. In your own words, please describe what you associate with Cher advertising Scandinavian Health Spas (what you think is being communicated when Cher advertises SHSs)." The specific question for the unpaired meanings was as follows: "Think about bath towels. In your own words, please describe what associations you would want to be created by a celebrity advertising bath towels (the kind of celebrity you would want to advertise bath towels)." Gender as well as responses to a few filler questions were also requested. Again, respondents were undergraduate business students. The results of this step indicated that "associate" and "communicate" elicited similar symbolic meanings; "associate" was chosen for use in the final phase of the study.

The final phase of the study asked respondents who had not previously participated in the study to think about the last time they saw Scandinavian Health Spa advertised. The purpose of this phase was to elicit responses that could be used to assess the consistency of associations between a product/celebrity endorser pair.


Cher and Scandinavian

Fifty-one undergraduate business students completed the survey: 29 male respondents and 22 female respondents. Eight themes emerged from the analysis of the pairing of Cher and Scandinavian Health Spas. A summary of the findings, which is presented below, are shown in Table 1.



You can have an attractive, great body Like Cher's was most frequently associated with Cher endorsing Scandinavian provided by 63% of the respondents. It is interested to note that males tended to respond that "working out at Scandinavian will produce an attractive or great body" whereas females were more likely to indicate this association by responding "a workout at Scandinavian will produce a body like Cher's."

Typical male responses included in this category were the following: "Cher is one well put together woman (attractive)," and "Working out will give you a great body." Typically female responses were: "Cher's body is being advertised. They want women to perceive that going to Scandinavian can give you a shapely figure like Cher's," and "If you go to Scandinavian you can have a body like Cher's."

You can be healthier or more fit as the result of working out at Scandinavian was the second most frequent association with Cher's endorsing Scandinavian provided by 35% of the respondents however, as Table 1 indicates, males mentioned this two times more frequently than females. Typical responses were the following: "I associate Cher with physical fitness," and "Healthiness is definitely being promoted. Staying physically fit is a better way of life."

It's hard work to get into shape was elicited from 31% of the respondents. It is interesting to note that although 50% of the female respondents included this response in their association, only 17% of the males did-so. The hard work theme was represented by statements such as "Great bodies are hard work but the results are worth it," and "Cher communicates will and determination."

Sexiness is also associated with Cher and Scandinavian Health Spas according to 31% of the respondents -- the high percentage generated to a large degree by the male respondents. Of the 16 mentions, 11 or almost 70% were from males. Example of responses that best reflect this dimension include: 'In a word SEX! Cher has been a sex symbol since the days when she and Sonny Bono were a team," and "It's dark and smokey, she's pumping iron some kind of sex goddess."

Cher's lack credibility was frequently mentioned; 27% of the respondents included this comment. Reports of plastic surgery on various parts of her body was the most frequently cited reason for her lack of credibility. Examples include: "Although Cher is supposedly showing that hard work in the gym will give you a great body its ironic that Scandinavian would use her since she has had plastic surgery on various parts of her body," and" associate Cher with getting paid a lot of money to show off a body which I'm sure didn't come from Scandinavian."

A person of any age can benefit from working out at Scandinavian was indicated by 16% of the respondents and the responses typically include a reference to Cher's age (which is now closer to 50 than to 40). Representative responses include: "That even though she is an older woman (my guess is 40's) you can still remain physically fit (good body)," and "I think of a slightly older woman who seems to be in good shape because she works out regularly."



You can become more independent and self confident by working out at Scandinavian was mentioned by 14% of the respondents and associated with Cher's endorsement. Responses include ones such as: "Better self image!" and "What I associate with Cher is 'get tough' with yourself and get yourself in shape."

Finally, Scandinavian is a good place to meet members of the opposite sex was an association for 12% of the respondents all of whom were male. Excerpts from typical responses are: "A place to go if you want to meet members of the opposite sex," "If I go to this gym maybe I'll hook up with someone like Cher," and "It's more of a social club than a gym."

No additional themes were identified from responses provided by approximately 10% of the respondents because they lacked unifying dimensions.

The second phase of the study, as mentioned in the previous section was designed to elicit responses that could be used to assess the consistency of associations between a product/endorser pair (e.g., Scandinavian and Cher) and the product itself. Thirty-two respondents, 15 males and 17 females, completed this version of the survey. Seven major themes emerged based on the elicited responses. A summary of the findings, which are presented below, are shown in Table 2.

You can have an attractive or great body like Cher's was given by 56% of the respondents and was the most frequent association. Statements were given such as: "I associate the good looks and a good body with Scandinavian. They seem to advertise that rather than health," and "Beautiful women with very well shaped bodies." It is interesting to note than 41% of the respondents made a specific reference to Cher in their associations; the comments generally focused on her body.

The equipment on which the workout take place or the physical workout itself was mentioned by 34% of the respondents. Typical comments centered on lifting weights and nautilus machines.

Scandinavian's advertising lacks credibility was mentioned by 31% of the respondents and this was associated with a negative perception of Scandinavian. Negative comments revolved around Cher as well as the lack of reality of the advertising representations and questionable marketing tactics: "I associate Cher with Scandinavian. I don't have a good image of Scandinavian because of Cher and her many tummy tucks, etc.," "I associate rich snobs working out. The typical people who make fun of fat people," "Beautiful bodies for a cheap price ... a line of crap," and "Beautiful women. Rip off. Too good to be true."

Sexiness was also associated for 31% of the respondents with Scandinavian Health Spas. Typical responses included: "When I think of this spa I automatically think of a sexual emphasis. The ads depict women as sexy which implies fitness," "Scandinavian promotes sex appeal," and "Sexy women with very little clothing."



A workout at Scandinavian can make you more healthy or ft according to 25% of the respondents although there were significant gender differences with females being nearly three times as likely to make this association than males.

Celebrity endorsers other than Cher were mentioned by 16% of the respondents with Sheena Easton being the endorser mentioned most frequently other than Cher.

Bath Towels

One objective of the study was to assess differences in associations for endorsed products and unendorsed products. Therefore, in an initial version of the instrument respondents were asked to either "describe the kind of celebrity you would want to advertise bath towels" or "describe what associations you would want to be created by a celebrity advertising bath towels." This instrument was completed by 29 male and 22 female undergraduate business students. A summary of the findings are presented in Table 3. Responses centered around five basic themes and although types of responses were similar across versions, there were differences in the magnitude of responses with respect to certain themes. The similarities and differences will be reported in this section.

A celebrity endorser who exemplifies personality characteristics that could also be applied to the inanimate characteristics of a "good" towel was the first theme to emerge from responses given by 53% of the respondents; however respondents who were asked "what associations would you want to be created by a celebrity advertising bath towels" were nearly four times more likely to give this response compared to respondents who were asked to "describe the kind of celebrity you would want to advertise bath towels." Respondents used words, such as "soft," "gentle," "clean," "quality," "luxurious," "warm," and "comfortable," to describe the desired person and associations. Specific examples include: "A clean cut celebrity who looks clean, refreshed and renewed by a shower ... than dries off with a supple towel," "Soft warmth -- a good one might be Michael J. Fox," and "Softness and clean bright colors. I feel someone like Christy Brinkley or maybe a baby could advertise towels."

Use of an "average" person was the second theme identified. Respondents described this type of celebrity as "average," "motherly/ grandmotherly," "simple," "family-minded," and "down-to-earth." These terms were used by 35% of the respondents; however, respondents who were asked the "kind of celebrity" question were nearly three times as likely to give a response in this category compared to "association" respondents. A celebrity in this category was, on occasion, contrasted to the glamorous, aloof or media conscious celebrity in the following ways: "I would want a female but it's not necessary. Mid 40's, motherly type. Barbara Billingsley 20 years ago is a perfect example," and "I would want a popular woman actress to advertise. One who plays a mom or grandma. Someone with strong traditional morals."

An athletic celebrity was identified as the third theme and respondents in this category indicated that athletes were believed to be good endorsers of bath towels because they are "heavy" towel users. Some respondents mentioned particular celebrities by name. Twenty-five percent of the respondents mentioned an athletic celebrity as a potential endorser. Typical responses included: "The kind of celebrity I would want to advertise bath towels is a professional athlete. This is someone who showers often and is a person I can admire," and "I don't think glamour can sell towels. When thinking of towels, I think of athletes.

An attractive or good looking celebrity was listed as a potential endorser by 25% of the respondents. Examples of responses that were categorized in this theme are: "Someone who is good looking," "I chink bath towels should be advertised by a good looking woman wearing nothing but a towel. Perhaps a Sports Illustrated model," and "Good-looking, very feminine."

Sexy endorser was the final identified theme and responses in this category indicated clearly that bath towels should be advertised in a sexy situation such as the following: "Associate sex with the bath towels by using Christy Brinkley, Heather Locklear or Paula Abdul. All three are sexy and I would love to see any of them in a towel."


The Instrument

The results of this study suggest that additional work needs to be done on the data collection instrument if we are to continue to use it to investigate the meanings that "adhere" in celebrities. Some of the responses elicited by the exploratory instrument were disappointing although it is apparent that the "tell us what you think" approach can be successful. We are able to demonstrate that celebrities possess symbolic meanings and we were able to demonstrate that celebrities pass on these symbolic meanings to the products they endorse. We were also able to demonstrate that unendorsed products tend to have symbolic meanings that are diffuse and undifferentiated compared to the more dimensionalized and unique symbolic meanings of endorsed products. The instrument did give us insights into the product/celebrity endorser relationship.

It was our experience, however, that the abstract nature of symbolic associations may make it difficult for respondents to be sure they are responding appropriately; this was particularly true in the pilot study. There are two possible solutions to this problem: one, the instrument might fare better used with an interview; and two, the use of visual stimuli rather than language might be more effective (especially since our data indicate that many associations do depend on what is seen as well as what is heard or read) once the meanings of celebrities are established. It might be easier for respondents to associate visual representations of celebrities and products rather than describe them. This is an approach that has been suggested (in private correspondence) by McCracken. It was out intention to establish meanings, empirically, before attempting to investigate matches and we turn our attention now to that issue.

Cher and Scandinavian

It appears that celebrities do contain symbolic meanings, these meanings can be articulated and, to some degree, they are consistent and interconnected. To begin, despite the problems with the instrument, our study was able to verify empirically the meanings that McCracken suggests (1989, p. 313) are embodied in Cher and, as he suspected, her meanings take on a power of their own and are "transferred" to the product she endorses. There was a-not-surprising consistency between the language used to describe associations of Cher and Scandinavia Health Spas and the language used to describe Scandinavian Health Spas alone.

Cher as an endorser of Scandinavian represents at least eight different themes which include her physical appearance, her age, her "personality," and her life style; she is "more than" Cher. She represents attractiveness, fitness, hard work, sex, independence, confidence and "good" middle age. When Cher endorses Scandinavian Health Spas she brigs these qualities with her and although the advertisement places an emphasis on certain qualities (e.g., physical appearance) the meanings elicited by her presence go far beyond the emphasized qualities (e.g., independence, confidence hard work).

Two finding somewhat surprised us: the extent to which respondents mentioned reports of plastic surgery on various part of Cher's body and gender differences in comments on the meanings of the endorsement. The plastic surgery reports had a direct effect on Cher's endorsement and the product: it discredited her as a credible source for the product and "passed on" the discrediting to the product. This is, most certainly, an unintended symbolic meaning transfer and we wonder if the company is aware of the situation. As an aside, males mentioned the plastic surgery considerably more frequently than females; we are at a loss to explain this difference.

Other gender differences are also interesting. For instance, females were much more likely than males to indicate that Cher's body resulted from hard work (it does seem more difficult for women than men to maintain a good body image); however, only males indicated that Scandinavian was a good place to meet members of the opposite sex (perhaps spas fulfill different needs for men and women). Are these intended or unintended meanings in the endorsement? Regardless, it is apparent that celebrities contain powerful and multi-dimensional meanings that they "deliver" along with their persona (McCracken 1989, p. 315). Therefore, despite problems with the instrument, our data supports Stage 1 of McCracken's endorsement process -- individuals charged with detailed and powerful meanings.

Bath Towels

What about unendorsed products? Our objective in examining unendorsed products was to determine if the associations for endorsed products (Cher and Scandinavian as the representative of this category) are different in qualitative and quantitative respects than those of unendorsed products (bath towels representing this category). We expected a wider range of associations for an unendorsed product than for an endorsed product because it seems likely that the presence of a celebrity endorser, whose meanings are relatively limited, passes on his/her reduced range of associations.

The results indicate that our expectations were correct; a broad and unfocused sample of mostly inanimate attributes were elicited by bath towels -from ordinary and clean to luxurious and comfortable. Bath towels do not have a celebrity endorser to reduce the thematic dimensions and so they are perceived by some as ordinary, others as athletic, and still others sexy and so on. The celebrity endorser appears to focus attention on a narrow range of associations with the product which are consistent with his/her presence. These associations may tend to create the more human or animated descriptions of endorsed products or product attributes as opposed to the more inanimate descriptions of unendorsed products.


The broad range of attributes elicited by the unendorsed bath towels suggests that an additional pairing study should be conducted. The responses indicated a wider range of celebrity types, from attractive to motherly to sexy, might make suitable endorsers. Bath towels should be paired with a celebrity in each of these categories. If meaning is transferred then the bath towels should assume the symbolic meanings associated with the endorser. This type of study could be useful in two ways: it could determine first if different types of endorsers can transfer different types of meaning and second, it could determine if the pairing of an endorser and a product narrows the meanings associated with a product.

Further studies could be undertaken, then, to assess whether a celebrity can be used to change the meaning of a product of if a mismatch between a celebrity and a product results in an inconsistent image. We have taken a first step to identify the meaning in celebrity endorsers and a first step to document the transfer of meaning from endorser to product. We are encouraged by our results while recognizing that they are a "first step."


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Lynn Langmeyer, Northern Kentucky University
Mary Walker, Xavier University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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