What Happens in Our Brain When We See Celebrity Endorsements?

Seeing that celebrity on your cereal box affects you more than you think

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

We know that people become more receptive to persuasion tactics if they’re associated with expertise. Professor Vishton explains what happens in your brain when you make this association.

Couple watching television together
Due to brain patterns of memory, people become more receptive to buying items if they’re associated with celebrity endorsements. Photo By Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

Studies with Celebrity Endorsements

Expertise is particularly salient if it comes from a celebrity endorsement. Some recent neuroimaging research by Vasily Klucharev and his colleagues suggests that the primary effects of expertise can be found in brain areas associated with memory.

Participants in their study viewed sequences of pictures while their brain activity was assessed in an fMRI scanner. The participants viewed a sequence of picture pairs. One picture would be of a celebrity—the tennis player Andre Agassi, for example. 

The other picture would be a particular object. Sometimes the object was something about which the participants would infer expertise on the part of the celebrity. For some participants, Andre Agassi was followed by a tennis racket. 

Certainly, we should expect that Andre is an expert about those. Sometimes, though, that second picture was of an object where the celebrity would have no obvious expertise, such as orange juice. Andre Agassi, we presume, has no particular expertise about orange juice.

Power of Print Ad Endorsements

This process isn’t exactly how advertisers use celebrity endorsements, but it’s similar. Actually, it’s not so different from a print ad in which a smiling celebrity is shown next to some product, presumably endorsing it for consumers and hoping that they will be more likely to buy it. 

After participants viewed all of these photo pairs—360 of them—they went home and returned the next day. They viewed all of the object pictures—without the celebrity endorser—and responded about whether they remembered seeing the item; they also gave a rating about how positively they felt about each one of the items.

Across different participants, we can ask how pairing Andre Agassi with an item boosts our memory of it—both when it is something he is expert about and when it isn’t. By using many object items with both expert and non-expert celebrities, we can partialize the particular effects of spokesperson expertise on our reasoning about various objects.

Memory and Expertise

First, when an object is paired with an expert, people tend to remember the object better, then more accurately picking out when they have seen it. Something about seeing an expert causes the details of the object to be more reliably encoded in our memory. 

Second, we tend to rate the item as more pleasing and more favorable just a day after it was paired with the celebrity. Interestingly, in many cases, this seems to happen even when participants don’t remember which celebrity was associated with an item.

It goes something like the following—you see the expert next to the object, it causes you to associate positive qualities with the object. A day later, you still have those vivid memories about the object even though you don’t remember that they were produced by the expert endorsement.

If you later see two tennis rackets next to one another that are almost identical—maybe exactly identical in quality and price—which one are you more likely to purchase? The expert authority becomes the deciding factor.

Brain Activation Patterns

When you look at the patterns of brain activation associated with this, you see a very interpretable pattern. First, areas associated with memory—hippocampus and parahippocampal gyrus—show increased activations. 

These areas of the brain are well-established as playing an important role in converting our short-term, immediate experiences into more durable long-term memories. Greater activation in the expert endorsement condition was also identified in the left prefrontal, temporal regions of the cortex. 

When we remember things, especially if we remember them well, we achieve that by relating the new information to things that we already know. Thus, if someone asked you to remember a particular tennis racket as well as you can, you will look at how it is similar and different to other tennis rackets you have seen. 

You might imagine what it would feel like to hold and swing this particular tennis racket. You might imagine a famous tennis star playing with it. As we produce these thoughts, we relate the tennis racket we are seeing to other experiences and memories that are encoded in our brains.

This elaboration part of the memory process is associated with activity in these two areas that showed increased activation—the left prefrontal and temporal cortices. If someone asked you to remember a tennis racket very well, you would engage these processes. It seems that simply placing that tennis racket next to an expert celebrity endorser makes you produce very similar processes in the brain, even when no one specifically asks you to.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.