Sunday, June 9, 1996
How sincere can we expect celebs to be?

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Well, I guess Miss Kathie Lee Gifford got a little more than she bargained for when she decided to rent her name to Wal-Mart. It must be terrible for her. Her eyes look swollen, and she hasn't talked about Cody for days. Maybe she should recover on a Funship Cruise, if we are not at war with the cruiseline.

Holding stars accountable for the products they hawk could have a chilling effect on celebrity endorsements. Soon, we may have to make our buying decisions without assistance from noted consumerists such as Ed McMahon and Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg.

There must be some reason marketers think we'll buy anything from a famous person. Why else would they put June Allyson in diapers and ambush us on prime time with Charles Barkley's deodorant? Why else would they pay to get Anthony Munoz to sell furniture? Or ask Jim Scott to sell potato chips?

I wonder how they decide a particular celebrity would make a compelling case for their product.

Expert advice

It's easy to see why Nike would go after Michael Jordan. We think he might really know something about athletic shoes. But I always wondered why Pepsi thought we'd make a soft drink selection based on Michael Jackson's recommendation. Weren't they afraid that the American public thinks he's so profoundly bent that we wouldn't risk using his plastic surgeon, his hairdresser or his cola?

Somehow they must have gotten the impression that we'll pay more attention to advice from big names. I wonder how they got that idea.

Perhaps they noticed that the Congress of the United States consults Robert Redford on environmental matters and Meryl Streep on pesticides. (I don't remember what Meryl had to say about Alar and apples, but I'll bet she said it with a fabulous accent.)

Thank goodness Congress stopped short of a special subcommittee to study Barbra Streisand's insights on foreign policy or Hugh Grant's research on the plight of working women, but I'm afraid we all know what we can expect from Kathie Lee.

She will, of course, become the official - and exceedingly perky - spokesperson for labor reform. Witness the swift action from Labor Secretary Robert Reich. One minute Kathie Lee Gifford was a completely astonished accomplice in the exploitation of children, the next she was co-starring in a press conference with a high-level government official.

How much can we believe?

So, how gullible are we anyway? Surely we know that Jim Scott gets paid to love Grippos. It is not just personal preference that makes Fifth Third the only bank Johnny Bench will ever need.

Famous personalities are different from actors who merely read a script gushing about gum and beer and candy and motor oil. We listen to celebrities a little more closely because we trust them, sort of. Even though we probably know better, it sounds like a personal recommendation to us. More believable. That's why they get the big bucks.

We like to think that they wouldn't tell us to do something that they wouldn't do themselves. I'd be disappointed if I saw Marty and Joe at Thriftway. Or if I found out that Candice Bergen was secretly a big AT&T customer.

So just how much responsibility does Kathie Lee have for the sweatshops which produced her clothing line? Should she have been expected to know anything about the company that produced the blouses she was selling? Did we believe that Kathie Lee was shopping at Wal-Mart? I figure we'll find her there right after we run into Rosie O'Donnell and Penny Marshall in the aisles at Kmart.

It's just a job. They don't really owe us anything. They're just paid to say they like all this stuff. Should Kathie Lee have made it her business to know anything about the company? Should Candice? Or Whoopi? Or Johnny? Or Jim?

It depends on how much their name is worth to them.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.