How Celebrity Endorsements Can Backfire

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Celebrities obviously bring attention to the products they endorse. That’s why manufacturers, retailers, and brands are willing to drop millions to get celebs as spokespeople. Yet a new study shows that sometimes, the celebrity endorsement is an awful idea.

The phrase “any publicity is good publicity” is regularly applied to celebrities and products alike, and it makes a pretty argument for why paying celebrities to endorse products is money well spent. What happens, though, if an association with a celebrity does more harm than good in consumers‘ perception of the product or brand?

Relatively few celebrities are associated with purely positive attributes, and, as a new study published in Social Influence indicates, there are times when only a celebrity’s negative traits are transferred over to the product he or she is endorsing.

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The study, led by Margaret C. Campbell of CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, examined the effects of endorsements from celebs such as Jessica Simpson. The singer-actress who is now famous mostly for being famous—celebrated for having a baby, among other achievements—is viewed in two distinct ways, according to consumers: one positive (sexy and fun), the other negative (ditsy and weak). In the studies, when consumers were asked to evaluate products endorsed by Simpson, they tended to view the brands in the same way as they regarded Simpson—as sexy, fun, ditsy, and weak all rolled into one.

However, when a product or brand seemed like a poor match with a celebrity, consumers only associated the celeb’s negative traits with the goods being advertised. The example of a pocketknife was used: When participants were told of Simpson’s hypothetical endorsement of the product, they regarded it mainly as ditsy and weak, and not remotely sexy or fun. And who wants a ditsy, weak, not-fun, not-sexy pocketknife?

So, for things like nail polish and high heels, sure, sign Jessica Simpson up as an endorser. When marketers want to boost a product or brand’s reputation as being strong, serious, or durable, though, an endorsement from a ditsy celebrity is not a smart move.

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This should be obvious enough. Yet not a day goes by that you probably don’t see an ad that leaves you scratching your head, wondering something along the lines of Why in the world is Snooki endorsing Google Chrome? OK, that example is a spoof, but it’s a spoof that was made because of the ubiquity of incongruous celebrity-brand pairings.

The Kim Kardashian endorsement machine also has some consumers puzzled, especially when it comes to endorsements that seem like a bad match, such as the short-lived Kardashian Debit “Kard.” Even before the fee-heavy “Kard” was killed off, it seemed dubious for a woman with a reputation as a spendthrift shopaholic to be endorsing a product that’s supposed to help consumers with their personal finances.

When personal finance guru Suze Orman endorses a debit card, on the other hand, it’s questionable because she gives advice to millions about the realm she now has a financial stake in, but at least the pairing sorta makes sense.

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In light of the new study, Campbell, the CU-Boulder researcher, says that the global consulting firm Accenture was wise when it decided to sever its endorsement deal with Tiger Woods after the scandal broke regarding the golf stay’s multiple extramarital affairs. Says Campbell of Accenture’s decision: “This new research indicates this helped lower the risk of gaining associations with disloyalty and lack of commitment rather than high performance.”

Well, considering how many women went public about their affairs with Woods, he did seem to be exhibiting one type of performance at a high level. It’s just wasn’t an honorable and trustworthy level.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.