AIM Distributors, the distribution arm of AIM Funds of Houston, is wrapping up a three-year ad campaign that capitalized on the discipline and ambition of a bevy of young, celebrity athletes.

The campaign portrayed the likes of pro cyclist Lance Armstrong, gold medallist figure skater Michelle Kwan and pro soccer player Mia Hamm. Many of the ads were narrated by John Spencer, an actor who plays the White House chief of staff on NBC's political drama, "The West Wing."

AIM executives are calling the campaign a success, mainly because they say the use of celebrity athletes quickly and clearly communicated the ads' primary theme: investment discipline. They say that Spencer's narration, meanwhile, lent the company yet more credibility via a recognizable voice.

"Anything you can do to get people's attention when the ad comes on the air is valuable," said Marilyn Miller, AIM Distributors' director of marketing.

But many marketing executives say that using celebrities in mutual fund advertising, while often effective, is no sure way to create a successful campaign. Executives, for fear of alienating future business prospects, were reluctant to cite specific examples of celebrity campaigns gone bad in the fund business. But they said the method of using famous faces is fraught with pitfalls.

"Sometimes it's a perfect match or a perfect mismatch," said Stan Bornstein, a principal at the Boston marketing firm DiBona, Bornstein & Random. "It's a good subject for discussion as to whether it really advances a brand or not."

Pros and Cons

An informal review of the past year's fund advertising campaigns provided by Competitrack, an advertising research firm in New York, shows that few complexes have used celebrities in their recent ads. OppenheimerFunds has used actor Gene Hackman's voice in its campaigns. TIAA-CREF of New York is launching a campaign using author Kurt Vonnegut, according to the company. And AIM Distributors was the stand-out, airing its athlete campaign nearly 30 times on TV between January of 2001 and early March of this year, according to Competitrack.

The reason few companies are using famous faces may be expense. While fund complexes such as AIM would not discuss the costs involved with using celebrities, Ann Becker, a principal at Thompson Becker International, another Boston-based marketing firm, said hiring well-known personalities doubles the cost of a campaign. Using only voices costs slightly less, she said.

In addition, fund companies may not want to risk linking their personal reputation with that of a famous actor or athlete. "They come and go. Personalities die. We saw this with Michael Jackson and Pepsi commercials," Becker said, referring to the pop star's declining reputation amid a flurry of personal scandals. "Celebrities have vulnerabilities."

Initially, ads that use famous people will be more memorable among audiences, she said. But if the campaign isn't crafted correctly -- that is, communicating a clear message about the company -- Becker said audiences may remember the ad, but not the company it promotes.

"It has to be really well done so that the product comes first in the mind of the viewer," she said.

Some executives say TIAA-CREF's latest campaign is likely to meet that goal. The ads, which the company has been testing in Boston and Detroit [see MFMN March 18], include commentary from author Kurt Vonnegut, who penned Slaughterhouse Five and roughly a dozen other titles. The idea behind the campaign, in a nutshell, is that Vonnegut doesn't have time to worry about his finances; he's too busy being brilliant.

Jim Atkinson, a principal at Orbis Marketing Group in Los Angeles, said, "People are likely to identify" with Vonnegut's story, and therefore, using the author to sell financial services was likely a good choice. "I don't care how famous you are," he said of Vonnegut. "You have the same fundamental problems that many Americans do."

Atkinson said viewers of the TIAA-CREF ads are likely to think, "Time is more important than many things to me; time is worth the same to me as it is to the celebrity.'" That's an effective way to connect with viewers, he said.

American Express, which offers mutual funds, employed a similar strategy more than a decade ago for its credit card, Bornstein said. The Minneapolis-based company ran a series of ads using the theme: "You don't know me."

"They had people whose names you recognized, but you'd probably never seen their faces before," he said. "It almost became intriguing and teasing and you participated. It was a little bit of a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous."

AIM's Miller said that its celebrity athlete campaign has been successful because the company started with a message and then decided celebrities would be the best way to communicate that message.

"We decided that our strategy in our advertising should show people who exemplify discipline," she said. "We did a lot of testing to find out what discipline meant to people. The one choice that was made more often than any other was athletes, so when we decided to build this campaign, we decided to use athletes and athletes that are well known. It's a way to show a concept without having to explain it in detail."

But Miller says that "celebrities are one aspect of a campaign. They're not the end-all be-all of the campaign. Always start with what your strategy is and what your objectives are."

AIM is currently putting the wraps on the athlete campaign and planning a new marketing push for 2003, Miller said.

"I can't say in our next campaign whether we will or won't use celebrities," she said.

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