Why celebrity credit cards fail
Stars of stage and silver screen flop in our wallets
By Emily Starbuck Gerson
It's no secret our culture is infatuated with celebrities. Supermarket checkout lines are replete with tabloids exposing stars' trysts, feuds and cellulite. Billboards, magazine ads and commercials feature famous people pushing everything from skivvies to sports drinks. Hundreds of celebrities have their own fragrances and clothing lines.
There's one glaring exception to our love of celebrities: We don't like to sit on them. Celebrity credit cards have been tried and tried, but few have found a permanent place in many people's wallets.
If we love celebrities so, why the scarcity of celebrity credit cards? Experts say the answer lies in both the public and in the celebrities themselves. For the public, there's a tension between mature financial sense and deep-seated primal needs. For the celebrities, there's a conflict between sound brand management and the desire for lasting fame.
Perfume wins, payment cards lose
A handful of celebrity credit and debit cards are currently available. There's the KISS Visa credit card, which offers monthly band updates and merchandise discounts, and the Trump Rewards Visa, which racks up reward points for stays and other "comps" at Trump Properties. The Carmen Electra Prepaid MasterCard and Russell Simmons RushCard help those with bad credit. The Elvis Visa credit card and Johnny Cash prepaid MasterCard exist for fans who just can't let go. But the roster of available celebrity credit cards mostly ends there.
In 2004, the singer Usher launched a prepaid MasterCard, which is now defunct. His name and face are on two "limited edition" Visa gift cards, but one promotes a movie that came out in 2005. Hilary Duff once had a prepaid Visa meant to help tweens manage their money, but several years after its launch, it expired. Also gone are cards for country music stars Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire, and a line of cards featuring pro wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan. Singer David Bowie even had his own retail bank in 1999 that issued a MasterCard debit card. Bowie aged better than the bank, which was unplugged a few years ago.
A primal need
Why would a consumer want a celebrity-branded credit card? Karen Sternheimer, an author, sociology professor at University of Southern California who researches popular culture and youth, and editor and lead writer for EveryDaySociologyBlog.com, says having a themed credit card is a way to link your identity to what's on that card, such as your alma mater or favorite sports team. "Likewise, choosing to have a celebrity on your credit card would be a way of making a small statement connecting yourself to that person," she says. "It is a way of drawing an allegiance with a group -- or in this case, a person."
Prescott Perez-Fox is an expert brand developer and designer in New York City who blogs about branding at his site, Perez-Fox.com. He says it goes even deeper than that. "The question of why someone would want a celebrity card is only slightly removed from the big question -- why are people obsessed with celebrities?" Perez-Fox asks.
"People attach themselves to celebrities much in the same way they attach themselves to brands. It's about the associations and personality traits -- perceived or actual -- and how we the consumers want to bolster our status by relating to others. In a way it's very primal; we only want to be accepted," he says.
Fear of alienating fans
Why does P. Diddy act, sing and own a clothing line, record company and television show, but have no interest in launching a payment card? Why has Jimmy Buffet created records, written books, produced and acted in films, started a record company, launched restaurants and a beer and even co-owned two minor league baseball teams, but never introduced a Jimmy Buffett credit card? Perez-Fox believes most celebs stay away from the payment industry due to fear of alienating their fans.
"Actors, musicians, and socialites exist in a world of glamour, sophistication and fashion -- these are all aspirational values for the middle- and working-class consumers who follow them," he says. Fragrance and clothing lines are reasonable extensions of the celebrity's brand, "but selling credit services crosses some invisible line in the mind of the consumer. The perception is that this celeb no longer embodies elegance and style, but rather he's simply trying to cash in any way he can."
Sure, you can sing, but ...
Plus, there is a mismatch of values, Perez-Fox says. Few celebrities are true businesspeople, such as Donald Trump. "These individuals may boast financial fortitude and market knowledge as their core values, but I can't say the same for Hilary Duff or Usher. Having a celebrity-branded product is analogous to taking advice from that person. You might take fashion and beauty advice from a famous model or actress, but would you trust her to fix your car or tutor your children for the SATs? Why then, would you take financial advice from someone totally unqualified?"
Sternheimer is also unsurprised celebrity-branded cards haven't caught on. She says for most people old enough to have their own credit card (you must be 18), the connection between buying and celebrity is usually more subtle than that of an impressionable young person. "For instance, if women see a paparazzi shot of a celeb with an expensive handbag, they might not consciously think they want the bag because the celebrity has it, but because they associate that person with having taste or style. Perhaps the branded credit card is too overt a link. There is risk of embarrassment for someone who might be seen as tethering their identity to someone else too much."
Consumers see this divide, especially because public awareness about credit is increasing, and are wisely wary of getting a new credit card due to celebrity influence.
Sorry, your 15 minutes are up
Some celebrity-backed credit cards, such as the KISS card, have been around for years. Why, then, have so many failed? Time is of the essence, Perez-Fox says. "The notion of 'member since' stamped on the front of a credit card helps customers reinforce this feeling of pride over time. Celebrities, however, exist in the here and now. Since they go out of fashion with every changing season, most consumers aren't willing to throw away their hidden 'time equity' for someone who may be old hat by this time next year. Imagine if you had signed up for a Britney credit card back in 2002. I bet you'd regret it these days."
Why would some successful stars step out of familiar territory and create a payment card anyway? While the financial and marketing benefits are obvious, Perez-Fox says most stars wouldn't do it for the money. "After your make a few tens of millions of dollars, fame, not cash, becomes the desired currency. The goal is to become more and more famous and to stay that way," he says. "The easiest way to do this is simply to plaster one's face on as many consumable objects as possible. It works on the same principle as outdoor advertising -- seeing a brand image over and over may not trigger a direct sale, but it lingers in the mind of a consumer for some future date."
This generally backfires, Perez-Fox says. "Yes, celebs may earn a few dollars by lending their name to a financial product or service, but the damage to the celebrity 'brand' is far-reaching. It makes the celeb appear as a money-grubber, someone who doesn't value his own name and is willing to slap his face on any old thing that will sell."
Sternheimer states a final reason why people aren't interested in financial products created by celebs: A bigshot celebrity probably carries a prestige credit card such as a Centurion (black) card from American Express -- not a Hilary Duff or Carmen Electra prepaid MasterCard. People who truly aspire to be like celebrities would rather have the same products as the celebrities. "The distinction here is that a celebrity would probably never carry one of these cards themselves."
Published: May 20, 2008
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