Is it smart to put your CEO in your ad campaign?

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 12 2009 1:08 PM

Enter the Big Cheese

Is it smart to put your CEO in your ad campaign?

The Spot:A man is standing on the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. On-screen text identifies him as "Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint." He tells us about a new wireless plan that allows Sprint mobile customers to call any other mobile phone at no charge. "It's a free country," says Hesse. "Knock yourself out."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

September saw a pair of large companies trot out their head honchos for marketing purposes. GM's new chairman, Ed Whitacre, starred in an ad that offered wary car shoppers a money-back guarantee. Meanwhile, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse popped up in this Guggenheim spot. There's even been speculation that Citigroup is poised to build an ad campaign around embattled CEO Vikram Pandit.

Wheeling out the big cheese is a classic advertising tactic, for which motives can vary. Sometimes—as in local car dealership ads—sticking the owner's mug on TV seems like a pure ego massage (perhaps one demanded by the big cheese himself). Other times, the CEO role is played for laughs, with the company's figurehead portrayed less as a real person than as an amusing spokescharacter. (In their series of comedic ads for Perdue chicken, Frank Perdue and his son Jim act more like the Geico cavemen than earnest executives like Whitacre and Hesse.)

No matter the motive, there is always an implicit message in CEO ads. They assure the consumer that there's a person at the helm of the company who stands behind the product. Someone who puts his credibility on the line by promising that you'll be satisfied. It's a shorthand method of conveying honesty and accountability.

In these GM and Sprint ads, the big kahuna is deployed in a surgical strike rather than in an ongoing campaign. His presence is a means of signaling that this is not just another ad but an important communiqué. Sure, we've had fun before, entertaining you with our silly commercials. But now we have something we really need to tell you. So let's pull up a chair and listen to the boss man as he explains our new, earth-shattering money-back guarantee/mobile-to-mobile calling deal.

Whitacre is filmed on a set replicating a design studio at GM headquarters. He's meant to look as though he's ducked out of his office only reluctantly, to spend a few minutes shooting this ad, all the while fiercely itching to get back to the hard work of improving GM. Given its recent public struggles, it's important that GM display some humility in its ads. (It failed to do so on the heels of its bankruptcy in June, when it came out swinging with a puffed-up spot about triumphant rebirth.) Thus, it makes sense to use the plainspoken, unapologetically uncharismatic Whitacre. The ad is akin to a calm retail manager emerging from the back of the store to soothe a frustrated customer.

By contrast, Sprint's Dan Hesse seems like a sophisticated style maven. His background music is the stately bowing of a string quartet. His set is the ultra-sleek, ultra-refined Guggenheim. No factory floors or corporate boardrooms for this guy. In an earlier round of spots, which saw Hesse strolling the streets of Manhattan, he was even filmed in posh black and white. "We thought it might make it look more editorial, as opposed to just an ad," says Rich Silverstein of the ad agency Goodby Silverstein. "I'm also a fan of Woody Allen's Manhattan, which was an influence."

Hesse serves a dual role here—more nuanced than Whitacre's humble prostration. Yes, using the CEO in ads is a way for Sprint to suggest it's being direct and straightforward with its customers. But at the same time, it's a subtle means of injecting personality into the brand. When we think of Sprint, we now conjure the face of Dan Hesse—suave, urbane corporate leader.

The best CEO ads manage to pull off this two-birds-with-one-stone strategy. Consider the spots for Dyson vacuums starring founder James Dyson. He's not just a guy who designed a vacuum and assures you of its quality. He also wears faded t-shirts and has nice pecs. He's cool! Which makes the brand cool.

In the wireless network category, a dollop of cool goes a long way. To use the old consumer research trope: If AT&T were a high-school kid, who would it be hanging out with at the prom? The jocks? The mathletes? The punks? The glee club? How about Verizon—or T-Mobile? These companies have talking points, slogans, and spokespeople but very little in the way of memorable personalities. For Sprint, putting one sincere, appealing human face on the brand might be worth a thousand jokey little ads.

Grade: B. Success in the long run will require continued judicious, well-executed deployment of Hesse. By the way, in Donald Gunn's advertising taxonomy (which posits that there are only 12 kinds of ads in the world), a brand's CEO is one of its "unique personality properties"—along with things like the brand's nationality (for instance, a sports car playing up its German origins), its unusual name ("With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good"), or its rich and storied history (notice that during Mad Men commercial breaks there are historical factoids about brands and clips from vintage ads). It's all about bringing some depth and narrative to that two-dimensional corporate logo.