What Is an Endorsement in Advertising?

The Ups and Downs of Testimonials and Celebrity

Overlay of several images of Tiger Woods at matches displaying and endorsing Nike products.

Power Sport Images / Getty Images

Over the last hundred years, there have literally been thousands of advertising endorsements. From athletes and movie stars to doctors and mechanics, endorsements are a major part of the advertising and public relations industries. And with good reason.

When a product or service chooses to align itself with someone famous, or an expert in that field, they are taking a shortcut to recognition, goodwill, and credibility. For instance, you may never have given a second thought to a certain brand of cereal. But when an Olympic gold medal athlete you know comes out and says they eat it, it's on your radar. 

In other words, endorsements are an easy way for a brand to attach itself to the positive feelings associated with a celebrity or industry professional.

Types of Endorsements

There are four basic types of endorsements, mostly paid, that brands have available to them. Sometimes they are free, especially for charities such as celebrities speaking out on behalf of breast cancer screening tests. 

Using the Product or Service

This is perhaps the most common in sports and fashion. For example, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are paid millions of dollars to be seen wearing Nike shoes. Medical brands will pay esteemed physicians, dentists, doctors, and other medical professionals to tell the world that they use a specific product. 

Speaking on Behalf of the Brand (aka Testimonials) 

Appearing in ads for a product or service is another popular way for brands to use endorsements. Many major celebrities do this to earn millions of additional dollars every year (think Christopher Walken for Kia) although most opt to endorse products that are not seen in this country. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger has endorsed a variety of Japanese products. This is often a good option because if a celebrity falls out of grace, their overseas image is more protected against negative press than it would be stateside.

Unpaid Testimonials

Advertisers have the choice of paying someone to write or say something that can endorse the brand, but it's even better when that testimonial is completely free. This can happen in a few ways. A famous blogger, YouTuber, professional, or celebrity, can say something positive about the brand. A famous example of this comes from England. When the TV chef Delia Smith uses a certain kind of cooking utensil on her cooking show, sales for that particular model shoot up ten-fold the following day. If a well-followed blogger gives a restaurant a glowing review, business (at least in the immediate aftermath) will boom. 

"Fake" Endorsements

This is not to imply anything illegal going on. It is simply referring to the kinds of endorsements that come from actors who are paid spokespersons for everything from a rental car company to a specific household cleaning product. These spokespeople can appear as families explaining how wonderful the product is or appear as medical professionals wearing white lab coats. They have to be identified as actors in these commercials, even if they are speaking the words of a real family or doctor, and therefore the power of this kind of endorsement is much weaker than the other three. Very few people watch an ad featuring an actor and think the product will be as good as it's stated.

The Dangers of Endorsement Deals

Endorsements tie two brands together. One brand is an actual product or service, and the other is a personal brand, from a movie or TV star, musician, or industry professional. The hazard is, once the two are tied together, things can get messy if anything goes wrong with either brand. One only has to consider O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby to understand the implications of an endorsement gone awry.

Danger to the Brand 

Should anything negative happen to the person endorsing the brand, the brand itself can suffer very quickly. You only have to look at the issues that Tiger Woods created for the brands he endorsed. In these instances, a crack PR and legal team are needed to stop the bleeding immediately. But in some cases, the damage is too great and the brand must disavow the endorsement.

Danger to the Endorser 

Similarly, should a brand come under fire for doing something wrong, the famous person endorsing it can become tarnished unless they move fast to remove themselves from the relationship. If it is discovered a company is using sweatshops, engaging in false advertising, or is flat out breaking the law, that could easily tarnish the reputation of the endorser.

Is Product Placement an Endorsement?

The jury is out on that one. Some maintain that true endorsements are overt, and involve a statement advocating the product or service. 

Of course, things don't always work like that. If a celebrity is simply seen out and about wearing a certain type of watch, or driving a specific car, and is photographed by the media, then that is also an endorsement, whether it's paid or not. 

Then there's product placement. It's not quite the same, but it can be said that a brand is endorsing a movie, and vice versa if the two are linked to a product placement deal. Was Ford endorsing James Bond when it appeared in Casino Royale? Was the Bond franchise endorsing Ford? In both cases, you can say that the equity of both brands was used to create a statement. However, it is not a typical endorsement in the truest sense of the term.