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Culture

Faces that Sell

What would advertising be without celebrities? An exhibition in Bonn takes a closer look at famous faces in German advertising.

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Marlene Dietrich knew what was good for her complexion

Claudia Schiffer is not just famous for her looks. Thinking of the top model may make a lot of people yearn for a good cup of coffee, too.

The German beauty advertises the coffee make "Jacobs" on German TV. But does Schiffer – and celebrities in general really make products sell better?

The exhibition "Celebrities in Advertising" in Bonn is dedicated to just this question. In an attempt to show just how important famous faces in advertising have become, the exhibition shows adverts, spots and posters dating back to two centuries ago and reports on the development of advertising in a social, and medial context.

The phenomenon of celebrity advertising is unfathomable. Just how much Nutella chocolate spread has been sold since tennis star Boris Becker started praising its taste? And how many millions of Haribo-gums have been sold since showmaster Thomas Gotschalk started chewing on the small, colourful sweets on his German-wide popular Saturday night TV-show?

The development of celebrity advertising, as shown in the Bonn exhibition, raises questions such as which product suits which person? And what has changed since personalities first appeared on billboards and posters?

Advertising with the help of celebrities has a long history. Goethe's face appeared on cups and pipes in the 18th century. Bismarck and emperor Wilhelm II advertised "Deinhardt" champagne. And Marlene Dietrich asserted that "Luxor" soap made her skin soft and clear.

The history of celebrity advertising can be seen in a close context with the development of media and consumer trends.

But in Germany, history made a divide in post-war advertising. Whereas West German advertising followed international trends, advertising in the former GDR kept very much to itself.

The exhibition discloses a surge in advertising showing sports and TV celebrities in the 70s and the 80s – a development which followed the increasing popularity of the television set. But the real boom came with the authorization of private television in Germany in the mid-80s. However, whether in the Twenties, or today, film stars and actors were and are among those celebrities still most welcomed in advertising.

Advertising as a form of art

The exhibition also makes clear that the role of celebrities in advertising itself has changed over the centuries. A decade ago, advertising was regarded as somewhat shoddy and was taboo for actors. Now, it seems as if praising washing-powder helps boost unknown actors' careers.

Whereas advertising in the 60s and 70s fell into disrepute with a general criticsm of the consumer society, it has now acquired a far better reputation: In fact, famous camera men and film directors are competing in making the best adverts. And today, advertising agencies are also competing for the best poster and the best TV spot. Advertising today is more than just praising an object. It is a form of art.

The role of actors in advertising has changed too. With actors advertising for coffee in their morning dress, or sipping their favourite yoghurt lying on the sitting-room sofa, today's celebrity advertising overcomes former boundaries between the private and the public.

Boris Becker in der AOL-Reklame

A year ago, Boris Becker advertised for internet supplier AOL, playing the part of the family man. A year later, after his divorce from former wife Barbara, Becker appeared in a new AOL spot as the overtaxed single.

No one knows for sure who or what benefits from celebrity advertising: the product or the celebrity himself. As more and more questions on the phenomenon of advertising arise, celebrity advertising, too, is becoming increasingly interesting for surveys and science.

But one thing science will never be able to answer: Just what does chocolate spread have to do with Becker's tennis talent?

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