Is it me... or are celebrity commercials a risky business?

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Kevin’s got 4G. Becks has got his kit off. And now Brad’s smelling good. Celebrities and advertising – it’s a risky business…

Now I’ve worked with a few A-Listers in my time, but never with a script as obtuse as Mr. Pitt’s latest offering. I mean, who can blame the lovely Joe Wright for what followed when his star describes his motivations like this:

“Chanel N°5 has always been the most iconic women’s fragrance.
The beauty of its success for all these years is both elegantly simple and complex at the same time. That’s what I see being the appeal of this campaign; it goes beyond the abstract of emotion or beauty to evoke what is timeless, a woman’s spirit…”

“Perfect, Brad. Now can you capture that while looking wide-eyed and brooding? Yes? And….Action!”

However, Pitt’s arthouse musings have got people gabbing about Chanel. What’s more, it’s parody gold – and you know my thoughts on that. I reckon Brad has enough public goodwill stored up for this one to be judged kindly by history – in a simpering so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. It’s pop culture in the making. Besides, he’s done worse.

So what makes a good celebrity commercial? Well, Samuel L Jackson carried this Barclays ad on sheer presence alone, despite a script more complicated than Inception. Humour helps – remember those fantastic Peter Kay John Smiths ads? And self-deprecation always works, as demonstrated by Kate Moss and Virgin.

But celeb endorsements can be disastrous. Accenture will roger that. The consulting giants had Tiger Wood’s face plastered next to their logo when his ‘illicit putting’ emerged. They wound up replacing him with an elephant standing on a log. Nike went a different route and enlisted Tiger’s dead dad to scold him.

Of course, some celebrity ads are just plain dire. And then there’s the megastar moonlighting abroad, ably demonstrated by Messrs Cage and Schwarzenegger. Great work guys!

Alas, with the rise of the omnipresent YouTube, ads like this are a dying art. Bill Murray will be glad. Who can forget his wonderful pastiche in Lost in Translation? I’m sure there are some commercials directors out there whose only line of defence when faced with a legend is to utter: “do it a bit more… James Bond”.

Which reminded me of a casting I once did. It was packed with young British talent. These guys had played Hamlet, the Krays and their fair share of Dickens – but could they add a dash of life to a simple commercial? Nope.

In the end I went with an unknown called Sacha Baron Cohen – but the creative director thought it was unfair to cast a family member. I didn’t see the resemblance until people began shouting booyakasha at me on the street. Or maybe it was this little gem shot by Malcolm Venville in my younger days.

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The thing is, the higher you climb the A-list, the more professional the talent tends to be – it’s those with pretensions of stardom you need to be wary of. I recently shot with Julie Walters and she was every bit as charming, funny and courteous as you’d expect.

It’s just about treating stars right. They require a director who’s going to respect their status – and their career – and not stitch them up with some “do-it-like-Bond” directing. They still need to understand their script; they still need to know what emotion to convey and they still need to be controlled so the editor can cut dialogue in a seamless way. Treat them with respect, sure, but don’t direct them any differently.

When there’s a star on your set, that’s the golden rule. Adhere to it and your celeb commercial might just prosper. Then again, it might not. As history shows, you just never know with celebrities and adverts.

There’s no ad to post this month as shot material is yet to air so I thought, talking of celebrities, I’d bring back The Cutter (still one of the highest grossing short films ever commissioned by Channel 4) for a well-deserved rerun. Mr Cox was always my favourite Hannibal, sorry Tony.

If, inexplicably, you’ve never seen it, get in touch and I’d be happy to send you a copy.