Celebrities making a fast buck in ad land has turned cool

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IT’S one of the most effective advertising campaigns of 2003. Har Mar Superstar’s presence in Vladivar advertisements across the land makes even this writer, allergic to vodka after a misspent youth in Soviet-era Moscow, feel well disposed toward the stuff.

What better way to lighten up a dark December night than to encounter a billboard with Har Mar resplendent in gold lame underpants? The campaign plays on Har Mar’s cheesy, mock-sleazy, 1970s disco persona. Musically inspired by Prince, Har Mar also shares the Purple One’s fondness for public declarations of greatness.

But if Prince’s self-regard was always a bit tragic, Har Mar’s self-adoration is self-conscious farce. Har Mar is the anti-Prince, and he knows it. And he knows we know he knows it, then invites us to join him in the joke. In the midst of this complex psychological transaction, Vladivar hopes that your attention will be drawn to their product.

Har Mar is the latest example of that new breed of serious artist (and he is serious, despite appearances) who has no hesitation in taking the advertising dollar.

There was a time when only two categories of celebrity got into advertising. There were those, such as Liz Hurley and Joan Collins, who despite their best efforts to make it as movie or pop stars, weren’t really much good at anything other than being famous. But fame, once acquired, is an asset in itself, and advertisers have always paid up to exploit it.

And then there were celebrities on the way down, once credible as artists and performers but now reduced to trading off past glories.

That’s okay, because everybody needs to make a living, though there has always been something a little sad about the spectacle of a once noble thespian or formerly fab supermodel reduced to being the frontperson for teabags or Bovril.

Or there used to be, in the days when artists and performers who wanted to retain a shred of aesthetic credibility wouldn’t be caught dead in anything so naff as an ad.

In those days, if artists of the stature of David Bowie wanted to earn a little bit extra on the side they went to Japan, where the same rules didn’t apply. There the Thin White Duke, marketed over here as the epitome of arty inaccessible cool, could appear in adverts for sake and get away with it.

Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming film Lost in Translation has an A-list movie star played by Bill Murray reluctantly selling whisky to the Japanese, and the ambivalence with which he views the task suggests that the gap in eastern and western perceptions of advertising’s status still exists. But it’s narrowing.

That’s because we no longer see advertising as the skid row of pop culture, the place where celebrities who can’t do anything else end up. There’s still plenty of that around, but today advertising is often big-budget event media, as likely to grab the headlines as news about the latest Cruise or Kylie vehicle. Advertising can be entertainment, and we’ve become used to the idea that TV ad slots are often better than the programmes they interrupt.

Advertising can also be art in a post-Warhol era when lines between high and low culture, authenticity and commercial artifice are blurred.

And now advertising is hip, thanks not least to the biggest star of them all, Ms Ciccone herself.

In 1999 she chose to lend her hard-earned, carefully honed iconicity to Max Factor. Though she had endorsed Pepsi back in 1989 (before the raunchy video for ‘Like A Prayer’ frightened the company off), her involvement with Max Factor was advertising, pure and simple. And the surprise of seeing her do such a thing transformed its status, made it into something more than just advertising.

There’s no shame in advertising any more, even for the most image-conscious artist, no apparent anxiety that selling one’s creative soul to the devil of corrupt commerce will devalue one’s currency.

On the contrary, Madonna shows her fellow A-listers that being seen in a Max Factor or Gap ad is all grist to the mill in a celebrity culture where the fact of fame matters more than what it’s for.

Her friend Sting has campaigned for Jaguar, and just one commercial break this week saw Catherine Zeta-Jones selling Arden, Richard E Grant in an Argos ad, and Andre Agassi trying to flog us Aramis. David Bowie and Iman have been signed up by Tommy Hilfiger.

The advertisers love this trend because it gives them a whole new bag of tools to work with.

But it’s a two-way street. Given that we no longer view advertising as an artistic betrayal, established stars such as Madonna and Sting suddenly have a new platform, and a nice pay-cheque to go with it.

Har Mar, meanwhile, still relatively unknown in this country, has cleverly made the Vladivar ads into a vehicle for selling his own persona as much as the product.

For the sake of all those pot-bellied guys with bad hairdos and terrible taste in underwear, let’s hope he succeeds.

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