Speaker of the House

Become a big enough star and sooner or later you’ll be selling something.  Indeed, many actors have become as famous for the things they sell as they are for the movies or shows they were in.  Wilford Brimley is as remembered for selling oatmeal as he is for any movie he acted in.

The other day I noted that Hugh Laurie, the eponymous doctor from “House,” is now selling cars.  What’s fascinating about the commercial is that although Laurie is almost universally known to North American audiences as the very American-sounding Dr. Gregory House, in the commercial he uses his real accent – and Laurie is British, born and raised.

Given that this will probably come as a surprise to many American and Canadian viewers, since to most people he is known for only the one role and his American accent is impeccable, the decision to have Laurie speak in his native English accent is an interesting one.

While I’m sure part of it is that anyone who does know Laurie is British would be offput by him pretending otherwise when trying to sell you a car, it’s equally likely that the producers felt an English accent would help sell their cars.  To American and Canadian ears, educated English accents sound refined.  An Cambridge-educated English accent, like Laurie’s, confers a sense of class on a commercial for luxury cars.  It just sounds like the right voice behind a luxury car.

By comparison, Ford truck commercials feature the gravelly, aggressive voice of Denis Leary, which presumably appeals to the aggressive, masculine aspects of buying a truck.

Clearly, it’s not enough to have a celebrity endorse a product; the product’s branding must extend to the identity of the celebrity.  It would be disconcerting to have Helen Mirren selling beer, or Larry the Cable Guy selling caviar.  It might also be exceptionally funny, of course, but the fact remains that star power cannot overcome brand confusion.  No amount of popularity will fix a lack of brand continuity.

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