Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

The Golden Age of the Celebrity Endorsement  - influencer 4492841 1920

The celebrity endorsement has gone from being the mark of a sellout to a power move. Famous people who wouldn’t have been caught dead shilling products in the 1990s are now hailed as #boss entrepreneurs. (The New York Times)

NH: In 1990, Joan Rivers began selling branded clothing, jewelry, and beauty products on QVC. At the time, this move reeked of desperation.

When celebrities turned to shilling products, this meant that they had hit bottom. Or, as Rivers herself put it in in a 2004 interview: “My career was over.”

Fast forward to 2021. Wait, you’re famous and you don’t have your own clothing line, alcohol, cleaning products, baby products, makeup, cooking gear, or cannabis brand? Better get cracking.

The author of this piece, Amanda Hess, correctly points out that celebrity-branded products have gone from scarlet letter to badge of honor. Having your own product means that you’re an entrepreneur in charge of your own destiny.

While there are a handful of celebrity collaborations that have always been “cool” (Air Jordans, for example), they were long outnumbered by the George Foreman Grills and Priceline Negotiator commercials of the world.

But Hess nowhere explains why this shift has taken place. In fact, it reflects a generational transition.

Shilling celebrities were labeled sellouts when Boomers were moving into midlife and setting the cultural rules. Sure, it was OK to make money in the '80s and '90s--but not that way. And Gen Xers, as young consumers, we're only too happy (since few could hawk anything themselves) to call those who did "yuppies."

Generational locations have now changed. Hard-scrabble Gen-Xers are now entering midlife, and along they way they have discarded all those toney Boomer scruples. 

Their credo is: Don't be shy of your ability to sway others to lay down hard cash; instead, glory in your profitable reputation. Meanwhile, Millennials and Homelanders have become the younger consumers. They've been taught to admire the hustle of a good salesperson.

They’re not just cool with influencers; they wish they were the influencers. ("Micro-influencer" is actually a trendy career path for many 20-year-olds.) One of the signs that social media stars have made it is for them to launch their own makeup or clothing lines.

In the early 2000s, George Clooney appeared in ads for Nespresso that aired exclusively abroad--apparently because he was afraid it would blight his reputation in America.

It wasn’t until 2015 that his campaigns crossed over to the United States and Canada. By that time, celebrity endorsements were no longer embarrassing but cool. If you don't feel like coffee, you can always buy Heineken Light (endorsed by Neil Patrick Harris), Diet Coke (endorsed by Taylor Swift), Pepsi (endorsed by Beyoncé), or Vita Coco (endorsed by Rihanna).

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.