The Commodification of Celebrity Culture

‘The influence of celebrity has been especially pronounced on certain kinds of media products (Turner, 2006: 487)

It is not so uncommon to see your favourite sport star or favourite entertainment star on the front of a magazine cover, or on the front pages of a newspaper with the mass media that is now readily available to consumers including: TV, Radio, Magazines, Newspapers, and the Internet, which are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in some cases. Therefore, this chapter will establish links between tablodisation of sports and entertainment stars and their status within consumer’s conscious minds as celebrities. I will also establish how sporting stars have the potential to become commdified units, and turned into a brand worldwide through the means of advertising.

The question has been asked by various academics about what constitutes a celebrity, especially in this media obsessed period of the 21st century. Is it the fame they have received from a front cover splash of a major magazine, perhaps it is the fame of starring in a box-office smash hit in the cinema, or maybe it’s a scandal that casts the world’s eye onto that individuals life. These are all plausible reasons as to why an individual who has gained mild success within their profession, can experience fandom like no other individual, however Marshall notes ‘celebrity is an acknowledgement of the public’s power – indeed, the celebrity is in many ways the embodiment of the collective power of an invested audience in a particular power’ (Marshall, 2006: 316). This illustrates that it is not so much what the individual achieves that makes them a celebrity, although it plays a major role, but it is in many ways the public, and the interests in which they indulge in of the “rich and famous”, through the media which may portray the individual in either a positive or negative manner. So with the invested interests of the public into the private lives of celebrities, it is worth noting that notion that ‘the contemporary celebrity will usually have emerged from the sports or entertainment industries; they will be highly visible through the media; and their private lives will attract greater public interest than their professional lives’ (Turner, 2004: 3) A sharp increase in television and press coverage of events on and off the screen involving those from the backgrounds mentioned, has meant that the consumers have access to their favourite stars, be it positive or negative press coverage, consumers cannot seem to pry themselves away from it all. It can be said that ‘the modern celebrity is a representative of a significant shift in contemporary popular culture’ (Turner, 2004: 5-6) and that the status of a ‘celebrity is the consequence of the ‘attribution’ of qualities to a particular individual through the mass media’ (Turner, 2004: 7).  It is now apparent with the high volumes of mass media publications using celebrities as their main focus, that the public have now become incensed with knowing every single detail about a celebrity’s life, wherever possible, no matter how big or small. So whilst it still remains unclear why the public have such an invested interest into the lives of those in the media spot-light and uncertainties at what constitutes a celebrity, it is suggested that ‘celebrity is not ‘a property of specific individuals. Rather, it is constituted discursively, by the way in which the individual is represented’ (Turner, 2004: 7). Therefore what is suggested here is that celebrity is not a quality that exists as a “real thing” but rather a social construction or a product of particular discourses circulated through society, particularly by the media. Moreover having spoken broadly about the coined term “celebrity”, and the public interest that is devoted into those individuals, comes a lifestyle that doesn’t seem achievable or attainable by those who consume what can only be classified as “gossip” regarding their favourite stars.

The impact of the celebrity culture that is now present through the means of the mass media, had not only had an effect on the entertainment industry, through film stars, pop stars and so forth, but also on the sporting industry, in particular the sport of football in the UK. ‘In an age where footballers have transcended the ladder from local heroes to global media stars the sense of organic connection and solidarity between players, clubs and fans has clearly been stretched’ (Carrington, 2002: 105) This meaning that whilst many of the consumers can sometimes identify with a player on the pitch or their local club, simply because they have been “born and bred” in the same area of the country, that is sadly as far as the connection goes for many of the fans. In the sport today, many players in the elite league have come from a foreign background, even to the case where over 50% of the Premier League is owned by foreign owners.  However, this does not stop fans of the sport to admire and consume content written about the individuals in terms of newspapers, both front page and back page news, but also glossy magazines. Many sport fans have had their favourites in terms of footballers, whether you are 5 or 35, you still hold those individuals in high regard as “idols” and this is echoed by Whannel who claims ‘the concept of sport stars as “role models”, however, postulates a crude and over-simplified model of the relationship between young people, the media and sport stars.’ (Whannel, 2002: 138). This illustrates an era by where footballers are not so much famous for their on-field efforts, or for the football club that they play for, but more so the personas that they perceive off the field. It is suggested that ‘modern international professionals such as (George) Best, (Dennis)Law and (Kevin)Keegan became “stars” or “celebrities”, well known for their off-the-field “personality” or “lifestyle’ however ‘the “postmodern star, whose public meaning is much more reversible (e.g. Cantona) or popularly founded upon notoriety (e.g. Jones)’ (Giulianotti, 2002: 131). This process of celebrity construction is undertaken particularly by popular media, including news media, but some of the interest driving it is the business interests of which were discussed in the previous chapter. So whilst the former hit the headlines throughout their careers for their good attitudes and performances to match that, it is often the case that when footballers behavior ‘hits the headlines for “negative” reasons, they are castigated for their failure to set a “good example”.’ (Whannel, 2002: 138) This is certainly the case of the latter, after Eric Cantona committed a senseless act of violence on a football fan during his career.  However, it is not just the negative publicity that can make a player a celebrity, in this case, a villainous celebrity, but the presence of a camera on the world’s biggest stage at a major football competition can often make a player an overnight celebrity with fans and a nation alike. This is certainly the case for Paul Gascoigne, after his booking during a European Championship Semi-Final in 1996 meant he would miss the final if England were to progress, only for England to crash out on penalties to Germany. ‘The abiding image of the match (and subsequently, of the tournament) for a record 25 million UK viewers remained a grief-stricken “Gazza”, sucking child-like on a water bottle, as team-mates struggled to console him” (Giulianotti, 2002: 127). This image was, as suggested, beamed across the UK but also worldwide, and the driving force behind England’s midfield, finding fame and fortune beyond the doors of the football world. That one image had turned the player into a global media star and consequently ‘after the tournament, the national media embarked on a year of “Gazzamania” (Giulianotti, 2002: 127) He recorded a pop single, released official “Gazza” merchandise, switched on the Christmas lights in Regent’s Street, met then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, and met Diana, Princess of Wales during a visit to Buckingham Palace.  This illustrates the effect that footballers who are seen as individuals and not just celebrities can have an effect on fans, the media and charitable causes. The latter is the case of ex-Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright, whose work for “good causes” gained him ‘a celebrity status outside of the sports world matched only by fellow footballer David Beckham’ (Carrington, 2002: 102)

 It is impossible to believe that one individual can be so renowned globally and admired by millions of fans, gaining a reputation higher than any other celebrity in both the sporting and entertainment industries, however that is the case for David Beckham, of whom has spread the now coined term ‘Beckham Factor’ across all five continents of the world. He is now at the forefront of the celebrity culture of the 21st Century, he is ‘undeniable a highly gifted footballer, good-looking, stylish, and married to the best-looking Spice Girl, he appears as someone who has it all’ (Whannel, 2002: 140) of which he has attained with relative ease, making consumers of the Beckham image, envious. This is evident in academia as Cashmore explores, ‘Beckham and other celebrities have been commodified: turned into objects that are desired by millions’ (Cashmore, 2004: 206) This often means that these individuals who are admired by their fans have been turned into brands by various designers and retailers, and in Beckham’s case, having released his own brand of aftershave, numerous autobiographies and modeling sunglasses to underwear. It is suggested within academia by Whannel that ‘Beckham is an exceptional figure, both because he is one of the few footballers in the UK to achieve full celebrity status, but also because he transgresses the discipline and work ethics associated with sporting bodies’ (Rahman, 2006: 225). Such is the image of Beckham, with his good-looks, well documented hairstyles, expensive clothing and his lavish wedding to former Spice Girls star Victoria Adams, it is not hard to see why he is one of the most recognizable stars of the contemporary celebrity culture that surrounds its consumers of every little detail of one’s life.  It doesn’t go un-noticed, as UK based gossip magazine Heat emphasize ‘we’ve supported David through the highlights and lowlights of his various haircuts: the streaked curtains, the skinhead and his Travis bickle style Mohican. But this latest look is a ‘do too far’ – more village idiot than international style icon’ (Heat, 13-19 April: 24-5). With the gossip magazine culture concerned with the Beckham’s lifestyle, it was inevitable that the wedding of David and Victoria would gain worldwide publicity across numerous mediums, television news, magazine articles, gossip magazine spreads and red-top tabloids. In direct reference to the David and Victoria’s wedding when they were deemed to be at the height of the Beckham phenomenon, UK based magazine OK! gained exclusivity to the event. However the event was deemed to be so over the top, with the fact that in the magazine, the couple were deemed to be sitting on royal thrones, that ‘ridicule undercuts the celebrity credentials of extravagance and glamour with an implication of tackiness and vulgarity’ (Rahman, 2006: 224).  So therefore, it is possible to see that ‘Beckham is indeed a ‘post-modern’ or ‘hybrid’ celebrity, appearing singly able to float free of context and to signify many different meanings to many different groups’ (Rahman, 2006: 226). This meaning that to many fans of sport and football he is a global icon for his skill and precision free-kicks, to women and gay men worldwide he is an icon in terms of fashion and most importantly, to advertisers he is a commodity, a self-made brand, that can boost sales figures for companies ten-fold.

The culture of celebrities is so well publicized that it is hard to pick up a news publication without hearing that a celebrity is being represented for being a commendable member of society, or for falling from grace, with a scandal reported. This is echoed by the fact that ‘in the print media, celebrity journalism has completely dominated the tabloid newspaper market in the UK. (Turner, 2006: 487) This coincides with the fact that ‘there is, after all, significant convergence between the editorial content in certain sectors of the magazine marker and the mainstream newspaper marker. This is especially the case in the UK, ‘where the tabloid newspapers (the so-called ‘red-tops’) long ago hitched their wagon to the popular appetite for celebrity stories’ (Turner, 2006: 490). This illustrates the need by consumers for those vital snippets of information whether there is an element of truth in these reports or totally fabricated, it is unknown, by it is well documented in academia that the use of celebrity culture in news publications through the ‘process of tabloidisation is usually considered to sacrifice information for entertainment, accuracy for sensation’ (Turner, 2006: 491). So as mentioned above tabloidization is one of the media drivers in this process of celebrity construction, therefore ‘as a phenomenon, “tabloidization” is most definitely located in sections of the British daily press’ (Turner, 2006: 491). However, this is not always the case; the market of celebrity culture extends widely to America, with their editorial, gossip, and fashion magazines such as Vanity Fair and National Enquirer. The most prominent figure in the American market is Vanity Fair, who have had many “famous faces” grace their front covers such as Demi Moore, and Madonna to name a few. So therefore the magazine cover and the cover story function as the principal advertising mechanism for magazine sales. ‘Choosing a particular celebrity as the cover image, then, is as much a marketing strategy for the magazine as a news event.’ (Marshall, 2006: 320) Some of the most famous covers/stories have helped to position a celebrity’s persona in the public eye and into the conscious minds of those so dependent on celebrity culture, but they also act as a publicity coup for the magazine, emerging victorious over competitors. Key examples are Demi Moore appearing naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, and in the UK market, David and Victoria Beckham having sold the exclusivity of their wedding to OK! magazine. This method of commercializing events of celebrities lives are not uncommon, with major magazines entering bidding wars in order to gain the exclusivity to a news story or an interview with a high profile celebrity. This is emphasized by Marshall who suggests that ‘the exclusive interview is also a way to ensure news values for the particular magazine; exclusive interviews are often the way in which a celebrity attempts to counteract bad press coverage around a scandal’ (Marshall, 2006: 321)

It is universally understood that a product or service can only reach its potential in sales if it is successfully and effectively advertised and marketed to the correct audience. Without effective advertising, the product goes unnoticed and will ultimately fail. We are subject to advertising in most aspects of our everyday lives, but it’s a case of if we personally take notice of the advertising taking place, or if we just disregard it as something to look at.

As mentioned by Jib Fowles ‘advertisers hope that because people consume the image of a star they will consume a product associated with a star’ (Fowles, 1996: 127) and this is shown in the fact that companies will pay celebrities well known to the general public to appear in adverts in order to boost sales. You only have to look at famous adverts such as David Beckham’s pose for Emporio Armani, Gary Lineker’s various Walkers adverts, Jamie Oliver’s Sainsbury adverts or even model Kate Moss’ Rimmel London lipstick adverts. They all have one thing in common; they have all been at some point, in the public eye for one reason or another, so companies invest heavily financially in order to secure these targets in order to promote their products dealing with celebrity lifestyle. This is illustrated by Fowles again as, ‘advertisers were quick to appreciate the sacred relationship between popular culture idols and spectators’ (J Fowles, 1996:126). This approach was taken during the early 20th Century, and is still apparent as discussed again by Fowles as ‘more contemporary advertisers perceive the celebrity endorser as someone who can penetrate the commercial clutter on television and hold viewer’s attention for a few milliseconds longer’ (J Fowles, 1996:126). This quote utilizes the concept of the TV advert, that by using a known iconic figure, consumers will stop being so engrossed in what they have been watching, and take note of an advert with a familiar face appearing on screen. Alperstein believed that “Informants used commercial appearances in a dialectical manner in order to adjust their knowledge and beliefs about celebrities” (N Alperstein, 1991:53). The above quote shows how companies and celebrities merge to form a bond that appeals to the intended audience. This is simply because a celebrity is using a specific type of moisturizer, or using a specific hair dye, consumers believe that you are gaining an insight into a significant part of celebrity culture and lifestyle.

Again, to reference David Beckham as a commodified brand within celebrity culture and sport, it has been suggested that ‘they (Beckham’s Agent’s) have positioned his image in the market precisely and strategically, associating it with the products that resonate with the right kinds of value: Brylcreem – youth; Police  - style; Adidas – vigor and so on’ (Cashmore, 2004: 159). This notion of advertisers and companies applying what can only be described as a search criteria, when attempting to identify the correct person to market and promote their products. So it can be said that ‘the types of attachment and identification that operate are perhaps more compulsive than those that tie consumers to inanimate objects of desire – cars, clothes, the tiniest mobile phones’ (Cashmore, 2004: 207). This links back to the earlier statement that Beckham is linked to a series of companies, often associated with clothing lines or hair products, due to his media profile of being a “pretty boy” and “gay icon”.

So do celebrity’s act as cultural signifiers within advert campaigns, it is fair to say that you can never gauge how well it will succeed. That is the case, just because a company uses a celebrity figure, it doesn’t mean sales/business will be boosted. They act as a spokesperson for the brand, themselves and consumers all at the same time. They contribute to the brand, by increasing sales through the use of their image as a focal point of the advert and product. The celebrities themselves gain media attention for appearing in such adverts, which are shown on a daily basis. Therefore it proves a valid point that if companies market their product correctly through well constructed adverts, match the endorser’s personality to the particular advert, then it will make good viewing and act as a persuasive measure for consumers to purchase the product on offer.

It is now seen that celebrities do have worth both within their industries to their respective professions but also to ‘extra-curricular’ work based outside of sport or entertainment. ‘The celebrity is a commodity: produced, traded and marketed by the media and publicity industries. In this context, the celebrity’s primary function is commercial and promotional’ (Turner, 2004: 9). Thus meaning that in reference to academic literature of cultural and media studies, that the notion of celebrities is constructed with various factors relating to culture and political economy. Therefore the concept of the sporting celebrity is a social construction rather than something that ‘really ‘exists’ out there. It is a product of a number of ideas or discourses that intersect driven by distinct economic, business and media interests. As a result it can be suggested then that celebrity construction seems to occur when economic and media interests come together. 

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Tags: Beckham, Celebrity, Culture, David, England, League, Premier

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