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Why Celebrity Casting Is Spring's Biggest Campaign Trend

From social media chatter to the ever-elusive element of surprise, here's why we should start getting used to seeing celebrities more frequently than models.
Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein. Photo: Mert and Marcus for Calvin Klein

Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein. Photo: Mert and Marcus for Calvin Klein

Kanye West. Nicki Minaj. Justin Bieber. Joni Mitchell. No, this isn’t an abbreviated list of expected attendees at this year’s Grammy Awards — it’s a few of spring 2015’s most talked-about ad campaign stars.

The biggest trend in fashion advertising this season is certainly the casting of celebrities (or otherwise notable pop cultural personalities) as the face of a brand instead of a model. Lately, the line between who’s a "celebrity" and who’s a "model" is becoming more blurred thanks to the likes of Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and their social media-savvy peers, who each have millions of online followers and who can cause a topic or an item to trend by merely mentioning it. Labels are not only looking to this new generation to increase visibility among younger audiences, but also to get people talking. The casting of big names from the worlds of music, literature and television is another way to do just that, and by the buzz this season’s ads have caused online — specifically on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram — it’s working.

Fashion brands featuring celebrities in their campaigns is not a new phenomenon — plenty of now-iconic ads include major star power, like Marky Mark for Calvin Klein or Dakota Fanning and Victoria Beckham for Marc Jacobs — but in the age of social media, brands seem to be on a mission to one-up each other when it comes to securing the zeitgeist’s most exciting talent.

In spring 2014, the Internet was abuzz when Jacobs cast one of the most talked-about (and controversial) stars in the world, Miley Cyrus, in a moody ad campaign shot by David Sims, which was released at the height of her "Bangerz" popularity. The same season, Olivier Rousteing unveiled a Balmain campaign starring Rihanna, a similarly rebellious personality with a loyal online fan base. In both cases, the pop stars blasted their campaign photos on Instagram and Twitter for days. Since then, the bar has been raised for this sort of celebrity casting, with the element of shock as added value. 

The face that launched a thousand re-blogs. Photo: Juergen Teller for Céline

The face that launched a thousand re-blogs. Photo: Juergen Teller for Céline

So far for spring 2015, we’ve seen Justin Bieber emerge as the new face of Calvin Klein, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West modeling for their friend Rousteing’s menswear collection for Balmain, legendary singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell in Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Music Project, Julia Roberts shot in stark black and white for Givenchy and literary icon Joan Didion posing for Céline, all of which caused an instant barrage of shares over social media. While securing a print ad or an editorial placement in a leading magazine was once the gold standard when it comes to fashion advertising, today that's just a small piece of the puzzle. 

"The way a 40-year-old consumes fashion is not the same way a 20-year-old consumes fashion," says Shireen Jiwan, the CEO and founder of Sleuth, a fashion and tech brand management consultancy. "So, they need to catch the eyeballs of the 20-year-olds, who are not necessarily reading Rolling Stone — they’re on Pinterest. If you look at a Cyrus, a Jenner or a Bieber and the number of eyeballs they have on their Instagram feeds, that’s the new Rolling Stone. If you can secure someone who is very much an icon in youth culture, you can secure an instant band of followers."

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In fact, WWD reports that thanks to the Bieber campaign, Calvin Klein has gained 3.6 million followers across its social media channels, and Jiwan is confident that the millions of mentions using the dedicated hashtag #mycalvins will result in a major sales boost. "These icons in our culture today, they’re the new 'lifestyle brands,'" she explains. "It’s about a desire to live a certain kind of life that you see on these Instagram feeds. From a merchandising and sales influence perspective, it’s hugely impactful."

There's no question that the way people's purchasing decisions are influenced has changed drastically over the past few years, which is why ad campaigns need to evolve along with the consumer. "Brands are coming to a point where they need to entertain people, not just to sell stuff — just look at the ratio of celebrities to models on Vogue covers," says Richard Christiansen, the founder and CEO of Chandelier Creative, who's noticed crowds of youngsters shooting iPhone photos of Bieber's Calvin Klein billboard near his Houston Street office in New York. "Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are the new ads today, it's all about entertainment. They're added value and really effective ways to reach people — brands would be crazy not to [use social media]."

Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent. Photo: Saint Laurent

Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent. Photo: Saint Laurent

While much of the buzz surrounding the celebrity-studded ad campaigns for spring was positive — namely in the cases of Didion, Roberts and Mitchell — brands have also received backlash for their casting choices. Though Kim Kardashian and Kanye West don't feel like an inauthentic choice for Balmain, featuring such a high-profile (and attention-hungry) couple could easily be construed as a shameless play for publicity. 

In Bieber's case, it makes sense that Calvin Klein would want to resonate with a younger audience, but could casting a star with a reputation for being disrespectful and crass alienate existing customers? "The goal in advertising is chatter, the first step toward sales," says Christiansen, who also believes that a celebrity casting such as Bieber's can really move the needle when it comes to sales. "The fact that we’re talking about it now makes it successful. You can see straightway what the reaction is. It’s not a matter opinion, it's fact." 

Another problem for fashion brands is the need to set themselves apart from the dozens of other houses who release ad campaigns that look largely the same season after season. This is why the casting of cultural icons like Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell in ad campaigns for spring seems especially clever. "Didion is a smart choice, linking the brand to culturally respected, intelligent women," Christiansen explains. "It's not a question of young and old — the more interesting challenge for brands is surprising people still. To be able to stand out in the sea of sameness ... look for new ways to be surprising and not use the same old 'It' girl." 

Though these women don't have the social media networks that younger celebrities have at their disposal, the fact that they're so admired for their artistic contributions made their ads sharable across many generations of fans. They truly went viral, and from Tumblr to the New York Times, you'd be hard-pressed to find an outlet where Didion's Céline images weren't the topic of lively conversation.

The initial motivation behind celebrity casting in ad campaigns might be a matter of stealing brand equity from competitors or the all-important "water cooler value," but they shouldn't be written off as merely publicity stunts. "It doesn’t give them enough credit for the casting — they’re big expensive campaigns with a lot riding on them," Christiansen says. "They're thoughtful, very smart. It’s problem solving: How do we break into the world of clutter?" While the industry was initially shocked when Kendall Jenner starred in her first high-fashion campaign (for Givenchy in fall 2014) or when the first Bieber images for Calvin Klein were teased on Twitter, consumers are going to need something more — something new — in order to get that excited in the seasons ahead. That's where these big-name castings come in, and it looks like they're here to stay.