Virgin Mobile’s “Sparah” campaign: Art imitates life … or vice versa?

In recent days, American television viewers have begun to see ads about a “faux” celebrity couple — Spencer Falls and Sarah Carroll – dubbed “Sparah.” What’s up with this?

It turns out that Virgin Mobile dreamed up these entirely fictitious characters as a way to raise interest and generate “buzz” about its Android-powered phones that feature monthly “pay as you go” plans that include unlimited web, data, messaging and e-mail.

The idea is to pique the curiosity of viewers who will then interact with other consumers and go online to view a variety of videos about this “celebrity couple.”

Now, before reading this blog post any further, I’d suggest you take a moment and view the intro ad here.

The “celebrity couple” is being “given” a house in Hollywood Hills, a stylist and an agent/publicist. As their “fame” grows, the “couple” is being asked to “participate” in activities “typical” of A-list celebrities, including photo shoots, store openings and appearances at special events.

As part of their “contract” with Virgin Mobile, the “couple” will be chronicling their “activities” across a variety of social media channels, including Facebook. Twitter and FourSquare.

And of course, the consumer public is being urged to “keep up with Sparah” by following all of the “important activities” of this “celebrity couple.”

Judging from the comments being left by viewers of the “Sparah” videos on YouTube, Virgin Mobile’s campaign is having the desired effect so far. Not only is the campaign generating significant buzz, it’s near-universally positive in tone.

There’s little doubt that Virgin Mobile has come up with a clever and successful way to generate awareness and interest in its phone plans as it competes with other service providers in the market. But what’s also interesting is that Virgin Mobile is shining a light on the hyperbole and “blue smoke and mirrors” that inform so much of social media and celebrity marketing today.

The line between what’s genuine versus what’s “manufactured” in pop culture – whether news or biography or gossip – is a very fine one. That’s always been the case, of course: the successes of a Lillie Langtry or Sarah Bernhardt a century ago would not have been so impressive without it.

But in today’s world, the explosion of interactive communications creates a hothouse-like environment in which the buzz can be born and spread faster than ever. (That’s why it’s often called “going viral.”)

It’s not hard to speculate that Virgin Mobile is conducting this campaign with “tongue planted firmly in cheek.” Still, the marketing pros at the company realize that while people may laugh at the irony of the campaign, at the same time Virgin Mobile is benefiting in a major way from the very things they’re spoofing. And that’s a master stroke.

Art imitating life? Life imitating art? It’s a pointed joke for sure … but on whom?

Celebrity endorsements in advertising: All that glitters is not gold.

David Duchovny - Baume & Mercier Celebrity EndorsementWe love our celebrities, don’t we?

Christina Applegate takes motherhood … to celebrity status.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is a fabulous celebrity … and a panel of experts has been commissioned to find out why.

 His very existence … makes Prince William a celebrity.

Because the public goes so (Lady) gaga over celebrities, celebs have been used to hawk products and services for decades. Often, they can add pizzazz to what is otherwise a pretty routine advertising campaign. But how effective are the added glitz and glamour in ringing up additional sales?

I’ve long suspected that the value of celebrity endorsements might be over-hyped. Now we have some quantifiable proof. Ace Metrix, a California-based ad measurement firm, evaluated ~2,600 television ads shown during 2010. The company tested 263 unique national ads featuring celebrity endorsements, spanning 16 industries and 110 separate brands. All ads were tested within 48 hours of breaking nationally in order to capture immediate rather than “cultivated” ad effectiveness.

The celebrity ads were then evaluated against a control group of non-celeb ads in order to determine their comparative effectiveness in generating ad “lift” (better performance).

What the Ad Metrix analysis found was that only ~12% of the ads using celebrities showed more than 10% lift over average advertising norms in their respective industries. Even more startling, ~20% of the celebrity ads yielded 10% or worse (net negative) performance over the average advertising norms.

Here are some of the celebrities who had a “net negative” effect on their clients’ TV advertising effectiveness during 2010 – worst listed first:

Tiger Woods (Nike) – I guess this hardly comes as a surprise!
Lance Armstrong (Radio Shack)
Kenny Mayne (Gillette)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Nationwide Auto Insurance)
Donald Trump (Macy’s)

Which celebrities managed to generate better-than-average scores? Queen of the heap is Oprah Winfrey for her 2010 spots for Liberty Mutual and Progressive Insurance. Ed Burns (iShares) and Carl Weathers (Bud Light) took the other top honors in positive lift.

Peter Daboll, head of Ace Metrix, had this to say about the findings: “This research proves unequivocally that, contrary to popular belief, the investment in a celebrity in TV advertising is rarely worthwhile. It is the advertising message that creates the connection to the viewer in areas such as relevance, information and attention, and this remains the most important driver of ad effectiveness.”

Interestingly, Oprah’s ads weren’t pitching products per se, but rather addressing current issue topics – in this case, warning against texting while driving. So one way to get through to the consumer via a celebrity is if the content is informational rather than a sales pitch.

But if the goal of the advertising is product sales, chances are the more the celebrity is truly “connected” to an advertiser’s product or service, the more successful he or she will be in engaging the target audience beyond simply the “curiosity factor.”

You can read detailed findings from the Ace Metrix analysis here.