In that rather grim concept comedy of 1986 "Ruthless People." Bette Midler is abducted and held to ransom to the delight of her husband, Danny DeVito, who, hardly believing his luck, refuses to pay as the abductors discount Midler until she has the only funny line: "I’ve been kidnapped by K-Mart!"
What a prophetic line that turned out to be. As most forms of popular entertainment flop or underperform, the celebrity has had to find alternative sources of income. What is so extraordinary is the number of celebrities pushing products, often several simultaneously, like Scarlett Johansson who sells everything but cinema tickets. Advertisements like these were once confined to the Japanese market and contractually quarantined from our prying eyes.
It can’t be a coincidence that Julia Roberts has opted for the easy money of Lancôme just as her films tank. Kate Winslet has joined her, a very fine actress but who has not had a hit since "Titanic." Lancôme always had a fairly prominent advertising but not Hollywood on this scale. But isn’t there a glaring contradiction in actresses complaining about the lack of good roles or the abundance of stereotypical scripts, then peddling face cream? Isn’t that a step backwards? There’s also the hilarious case of Charlize Theron, who managed to get herself sued for confusing her endorsements.
But the grand prize for hypocrisy must go to George Clooney, who has got himself an awful lot of column inches through his "commitment" to development and human right issues while promoting Nespresso from Nestle — a company that has been the target of one of the longest and most impassioned boycotts for decades.
More recently Jennifer Aniston plugged SmartWater, which I had noticed she often carried when being photographed. Ah, silly me — she’s an investor! Incidentally Aniston is selling her house; I know this because she is participating in another celebrity ploy that has gone viral — the manufactured property scoop.
Where once a financial transaction like a house sale was completed as discreetly as possible, now an increasing number of celebrity sellers are happy to play along with the celebrity chroniclers to flush out a starstruck buyer.
The money, apparently, is greater than any risk of stalkers, crazy fans, burglars or even basic issues of privacy (the houses may be empty, but the principle remains). If you want to us tell us what you’re selling and for how much, don’t whine when we want to know what you bought, where, and for how much. And if you can keep a guestbook for overnight guests it would save us have to trawl websites for details of liaisons at said properties. We, the public, don’t come with a remote control.
Of course sometimes unemployed celebrities use their time to maintain their profile by selling their moral superiority. I recall seeing Demi Moore nailing her colors to the pink ribbon breast cancer charity some time before appearing on the cover of Cigar Aficionado! Breast cancer bad, lung cancer good on Planet Demi.
And Ewan McGregor took part in a charity motorbike ride lavishly featured on the BBC — then appeared in fragrance ads that mimicked the charity venture without any mention of a charitable contribution.
All, or most, celebrities are now available for rent. On a trip last year to Istanbul, I was surprised to discover that Kevin Costner was turning tricks for Turkish Airlines. Costner’s explanation is a classic: “This was a very important step in my life. That is why I have accepted this commercial proposal and I think my other friends have had the same idea."
An important step? A thrilling chapter for the memoirs, Kevin.
Of course, when our dear darling celebrities aren’t flogging things to the public, they are taking their buttocks to hotels to perform guest appearances in private for tycoons and the like, a highly profitable little sideline until events shine a light under that murky bushel. Who would have thought Colonel Gaddafi’s blood-stained ATM in the desert would have so many celebrity devotees?
Gaddaffi Jr. was so stressed by a Christmas spent battering his wife in a London hotel suite he had to usher in the New Year in St. Barts with Beyoncé to soothe his jangled nerves. Miss Knowles has since told us, albeit with a bit of coaxing, she gave her alleged $2 million fee to the Clinton Foundation, though there’s nothing on their website. Wouldn’t it have a boosted the Haitian fundraising efforts if Beyoncé’s grand gesture was publicized at the time?
And wait a minute — why is she annoyed about the promoter’s links to the Gaddafi’s when it was the Gaddafis she singing for? I suppose the reticence from shy, retiring Beyoncé says it all. Let’s not overlook Susan Sarandon, that internationally esteemed overseer of state morals, whose daughter Eva Amurri has been enjoying the largesse of the film production wing of Gaddafi, Inc. (We can save the nepotism for another day.)
There is a danger that with greedy stars and product placement, popular entertainment will go the way of professional sports, where the vast endorsement and commercial deals are vital to the preposterous economics, despite the generally high ticket prices. As Tiger Woods has discovered, no matter how acclaimed your talent, or vocation, when it is subservient to the commercial imperative, the consequences and recriminations are grave when the public feels diddled by the persona a celebrity sells.
The moral problem I’ve always had with celebrity advertising is that it employs the celebrity persona to persuade us to do what the celebrity wishes us to do, namely buy the product they happen to be flogging. It is a form of manipulation that abdicates all responsibility for a fee.
Of course, should any of us take a gun and re-create a violent scene in a celebrity’s movie, the celebrity is in no way to blame. That was art, fiction, even though the celebrity may have employed the same persona used to peddle a product.
It is almost certain that the law courts would not find a celebrity culpable but acquittal in the court of public opinion may be less forthcoming. Yes, we live an era of the "democratization" of celebrity is irreversible, but it also leads to over-familiarity, which I think will be discomforting, and possibly dangerous, as celebrity reality replaces celebrity endeavor.