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People don’t buy products because celebrities endorse them. Instead, they mentally put themselves in the position of the celebrities doing the endorsing.
In other words, people personalize their imagined relationships with famous people and integrate the celebrity’s personality traits into their own identity and self-image.
Simply put, consumers embrace certain personality traits of celebrities in advertisements and use them to help construct their own identities.
"Our primary interest is what consumers do with celebrity and the roles celebrity interactions play in consumer identity construction," said Hayley Cocker, visiting professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. "Of course, we’re talking about the cultural messages and meanings provided by celebrities, not literal relationships. Rather than a passive, top-down model in which celebrities use their marketing power to pass on cultural meanings to consumers, we found that consumers actually flit between different and often fragmented identities passed along to them by celebrities."
Cocker, who conducted the research with Emma Banister, a lecturer at Manchester Business School in the United Kingdom, interviewed six women and five men between ages 18 and 24. Overall, the researchers found that consumers' relationships with celebrities fall within three categories— everyday, inspirational and negative — in terms people use to describe the celebrity.
Terms used to describe everyday relationships included “best friendship,” “compartmentalized” and “childhood friendship.” The inspirational category included “aspirational,” “admiration” and “illusory” relationships. Negative celebrity relationships include “antagonistic,” “not for me” and “guilty pleasures,” all of which connote, as the name suggests, some kind of negative quality that motivates the consumer against the celebrity.
In particular, this research highlights the way that consumers feel about the effectiveness of celebrity endorsements. Instead of buying products because they are endorsed by a particular celebrity, consumers look to buy products that fit in line with their personality type as defined by their relationship to the celebrity and how closely they feel aligned with their persona.
"We see consumers as active producers of symbols and signs of consumption," Cocker said. "They are creating meaning rather than just waiting around to be told what is important in terms of constructing their identity."
The research has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Marketing Management.