The most trusted celebrities

What stars do Americans trust most?

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Hint: Tiger Woods isn’t one of them. Tiger Woods’ sex scandal may have finally exhausted front-page news editors, but it remains top of mind for marketers.

Consider this: Before his late November car crash, the world-class golfer was a marketer’s dream–a consummate professional on the course and guarded family man off.

Brands from Nike and Accenture to Gillette and AT&T threw millions at his (seemingly) squeaky clean image. But as time has passed–and the laundry list of alleged mistresses has grown–many of Woods’ sponsors have suspended their campaigns, if not dropped him altogether.

Two University of California Davis economics professors have gone as far as saying Woods’ ongoing saga has cost shareholders of the companies he endorsed up to $12 billion in losses, though that seems a stretch.

One thing is for sure: While most marketing executives think the celebrity endorsement industry will eventually return to relative normalcy, in the short term the Woods example will likely give marketers pause.

Why bother at all with stars? “In a very crowded media environment its hard for companies to stand out,” says Gerry Philpott, president of Los Angeles-based E-Poll Market Research, who gauges the marketability of hundreds of public figures for clients. “They need those names to cut through the clutter.”

So which celebrities do people trust most? We turned to E-Poll, which ranked the A-list names Americans rated the highest in for trustworthiness, awareness and appeal.

James Earl Jones tops the list. One of the most instantly recognizable voices in entertainment history–and a commanding presence to match–he’s still best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. But he’s also lent his voice to the CNN tagline and NBC’s Olympic coverage and his acting skills to everything from Conan the Barbarian to Field of Dreams.

Coming in second is Tom Hanks. Audiences laughed with Hanks as a wisecracking cross-dresser on the early 1980s cult comedy series Bosom Buddies. They cried with him as a homosexual AIDS victim in the 1993 tearjerker Philadelphia. And they rallied with him as a slow-witted Southerner in the 1994 runaway hit Forrest Gump. Throughout these and other roles the Academy Award-winning actor and director managed to earn their esteem, respect and confidence.

No. 3? Michael J. Fox. As Alex P. Keaton on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, Fox earned viewers’ affection. As a leading activist in the fight for Parkinson’s disease funding (a disease he was diagnosed with more than a decade ago), he has earned their respect.

For these and other reasons, including talent and fame, the actor is among the marketing world’s safest bets. Others on the list include Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Sally Field.

Celebrity Endorsement Network president Noreen Jenney believes the repercussions of Woods’–as well as his sponsors’–saga will be felt in subtle ways in the coming months and deals.

Among them: Marketers will do that much more diligence on stars’ personal lives before signing them to represent their brands. What’s more, in a post-Tiger era she expects contracts will be written a little differently and marketers will be able to enforce stricter morality clauses regardless of a star’s clout.

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At the same time DeWitt Stern, a New York-based insurance firm that specializes in entertainment, is prepared to take it a step further by homing in on and protecting the brands involved.

The firm’s policies, which have been dubbed “reputation risk insurance,” will allow marketers to file claims for crisis management costs, celebrity sponsorship fees and lost sales in the event that their spokesperson becomes an embarrassment.

“The concept of insuring a celebrity spokesperson has been done for years,” explains DeWitt managing partner Scott Brady, referencing non-appearance or death, disgrace and disablement policies.

“But no one has ever really taken a look at a ‘brand’ as the asset itself, from an insurance perspective.” Though not yet available for the likes of hard-hit Nike, he hopes to have them ready for purchase by the end of the quarter.


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