Hired Devices: Should Brands Bet On A Famous Face?

We wrote a piece in More About Advertising this week which looked at the poor emotional performance of two big mobile phone providers – Vodafone and EE. What they have in common is that they have both made a hefty investment in brand ambassadors – Kevin Bacon has been appearing in EE’s ads for years, and while Martin Freeman hasn’t been the face of Vodafone for as long, he’s shown up in a lot of high profile UK campaigns, including some big-budget Christmas ads last year.

As our MAA analysis with insights from our market research tools showed, neither of the two icons are moving the emotional needle, with a series of 1-Star ads likely to drive zero profitable growth. They’re being outperformed by – among others – 3 Mobile’s bestiary of freakish animal hybrids, like the Puggerfly and the Ostrich/Giraffe.

When your high-ticket Hollywood star is making viewers feel less than a Puggerfly, something’s wrong.

Brands keep betting on ambassadors, though. In the wake of their decision to shift their creative away from WPP, the first ad of Ford’s new era starred a familiar face: Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, behind the wheel of a Ford, delivering the company’s aggressive message on how they build the future others just talk about. It’s a spot in an automotive ad tradition – Clint Eastwood won industry acclaim with his gritty voiceover for Chrysler at the Super Bowl a few years back.

We’ll have full data on the Ford ad (and many others) with the release of System1 Ad Ratingsin the coming weeks. But we’ve already done some work on the overall effectiveness of placing brand ambassadors at the heart of your creative efforts.

Brand ambassadors often work in the same way as a Fluent Device – they’re an asset, used by the brand to be the heart of the creative storytelling, in the same way that Bud Light’s King or the animated M&Ms characters are. The only difference is, they have a big chunk of existing Fluency they can leverage.

Is that a good thing? On paper it seems like a win – take a brand, add the boost of a familiar face, and voila! But when we examined “Hired Devices” (celebrities or existing characters) against the brand-owned “Fluent Devices”, we saw an interesting effect.

Our advertising insights platform shows that Devices like Bacon, Freeman and now Cranston are more likely to produce some short-term, sales activation effects than Fluent Devices are. But on all long-term brand and business growth impacts, they lag behind.

What’s the problem? According to our audience insights platform, the point is that the celebrity’s existing Feeling and Fluency, and the brand’s own Feeling and Fluency, don’t always mix. This isn’t a question of brand/celebrity fit, more an issue of creative quality – if the only source of positive emotion in the ad is its star, it’s no surprise that the brand doesn’t benefit much long-term.

Hired devices campaigns that take a famous figure and build an entertaining, emotional world around them have a better chance of avoiding this. Think of the Nespresso ads starring George Clooney, which regularly score 4- or 5-Stars in testing.

Will Cranston achieve this for Ford? We don’t yet know if his role as the brand’s face is a long-term deal or not. But Ford should consider their own advice – in the long term, assets they build, rather than hire, are likely to have bigger payoffs.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand tracking tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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