Current Issue Summary
March 2023 (Vol. 63, Issue 1)
Actors Who Play Outlaws Can Be Good for Endorsing Products: The Unexpected Power of Negative Character Endorsers
Research by Jennifer Jeffrey (King’s University College), Matthew Thomson (University of Massachusetts Amherst), and Allison R. Johnson (DesignEmpathy.org) breaks down preconceived notions about whom brands should choose as endorsers. The authors find that negative, unscrupulous characters, like Breaking Bad’s antihero and drug kingpin Walter White, can be effective product endorsers even though they are liked and trusted less than their real-world counterparts.
The research is grounded in certainty of meaning theory—“a construct that speaks to how well-known and understood a celebrity is with target audiences.” Two experiments compared the actors with their fictional character personas. In Study 1, as expected, negative characters were liked and trusted less than their actor counterparts and viewed as a poor fit for mainstream product brands. Yet, although the two elements—fit and liking/trust—“are central to successful endorsement,” the researchers were surprised to find that “endorsements with these characters are not judged as inferior overall but, instead, equally effective.” That parity appears to be “driven by characters’ higher certainty of meaning. Essentially, “because the characters are better known and understood, they facilitate meaning transfer between endorser and brand, offsetting their drawbacks.”
Study 2 identified other potential benefits of negative characters:
- Using them in ads endorsing controversial products, such as condoms, cigarettes, cannabis or weapons proved very effective.
- “The finding that negative characters can be effective endorsers offers advertisers creative license particularly in the promotion of controversial products.”
- Using the seedy character appears to “buffer the associated actor from negative consequences tied to endorsing” the product.