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I need to know about celebrity endorsements. How do they work? Why do companies use celebrities to sell their stuff?

By: Sabrina, Chicago

A.B. Replies: The term those slick, fox-faced marketing people use is stopping power. In Greater Heartland, USA, that's translated as "Great Daniel Boone's ghost, Irma! Drop your knitting and take a gander at what that Jessica Simpson is hucking at these fellas on that there pizza-pie commercial! And in short pants!"

One sales bible, aptly titled Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective, recently estimated that 20 percent of all TV ads use celebrities. Why? So companies can cut through the noise and static with a face you (with any luck) recognize and wish to obey. Advertisers spend millions of dollars on celebrity endorsers for the same reason Us Weekly uses the same cover faces every week: Famous people sell.

"Because of the power of their celebrity, stars have been shown to attract consumer attention," says Jonathan Holiff of celebrity-endorsement agency Hollywood-Madison. "The thinking goes that a celebrity spokesperson will cause the consumer to stop and listen just long enough to hear and internalize the sales message."

In other words, you may pretend you don't care about Jessica Simpson's sex life and her ham-handed "stealth" trips to the Chateau Marmont, but deep down, you obsess over her--her feverishly bleached hair, go-go power thighs and Miss USA grin. (Maybe, if you look closely enough at that Pizza Hut commercial, Jessica will make some subconscious slip about what really happened with that Johnny Knoxville scoundrel. "Made for popping" indeed.)

Consider: Are you more likely to buy a Coke from a strange girl on roller skates or from Adrien Brody, who has already wowed you with his ability to nab chicks despite a nose that has better acoustics than the Hollywood Bowl? That roller girl may be very nice, but after watching the 2003 Oscars, you are absolutely positive that Mr. Brody is a hero--a man who has overcome an unfortunate profile to live the American dream and win an Academy Award.

Let's drill down on some specifics. According to marketing experts, there are several categories to consider in hiring a spokesperson or "source." The three most important are "credibility," "attractiveness" and, I kid you not, "power."

Credibility and attractiveness are self-explanatory, but just what is power? I quote now from the aforementioned marketing bible: "The receiver accepts the persuasive influence of the source and acquiesces to his or her position in hopes of obtaining a favorable reaction or avoiding punishment" (i.e., if you defy her and secretly buy a Domino's thin crust, Jessica will never flash her Pizza Hut power thighs in your direction again).

There. Now go buy a Coke, before Brody leaps out of his low-rider and finds a way to punish you.