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In TV ads, A-list stars are breaking bad

Hawking everything from mattresses to Mountain Dew (we’re looking at you, Bryan Cranston), celebrities are cashing in at a cost to their reputations

30CELEBRITYADSPhotos by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, Illustration by Adobe/Globe Staff

By the time the final whistle blows at the Super Bowl on Feb. 13, there will be a loser on the field — and, if recent history is any guide, a few high-profile losers off the field as well.

A-list celebrities are increasingly prone to committing the reputational equivalent of a goal-line fumble as they squander their mystique or likeability in gratingly unfunny and sometimes downright embarrassing TV commercials.

Nowadays, the transition from stardom to shill-dom is quicker than ever. It has created a flood of ads — many of which debut each year on Super Sunday at a cost of millions of dollars per 30-second spot — that leverage and exploit the personas that made us fans of these entertainers to begin with.


This can give rise to the sour feeling that we’ve been played, as if the primary point of their performance careers all along was to land big endorsement deals. Obviously that’s not literally true, but the incessant spectacle of performers selling out and cashing in tends to make one a little peevish.

Is this an overly stuffy, get-off-my-lawn reaction to something that is now routine? Possibly. I’ll grant you that the very term “sellout” is quaint. There was a time when a certain stigma was attached to doing a TV commercial. If you were an A-lister, it could dent your cred and get you kicked out of the cool kids’ club. That time is long gone.

Yet when a star I admire appears in a commercial I hate, it still creates a little blip of cognitive dissonance. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. One of the puzzles is the contradiction between the good choices of projects and roles they’ve made to forge successful careers, and the lack of discernment they sometimes show once commercial lucre beckons.


Take Kate McKinnon. I consider her to be among the most gifted comic performers of her generation, but what on earth is she going for in those Verizon commercials? You know, the ones where an overly amped-up McKinnon, attired in a red pantsuit and red high heels, blares that “everyone, everyone, everyone deserves better.” Yes indeed, Kate, and that includes you.

Bryan Cranston is indisputably one of the greatest dramatic actors of our time. But if Cranston was going to do a Mountain Dew commercial spoofing Jack Nicholson’s ax-wielding “Heeeere’s Johnny!’’ scene from “The Shining,” couldn’t he have at least insisted the writers come up with a better punchline than “Heeere’s Mountain Dew Zero!’’ Hey, Bryan? I am the one who knocks… your judgment.

Mojo is a delicate and fleeting thing, and has to be handled carefully. I have three words for you: “Matthew McConaughey” and “Lincoln.” No sooner had Dan Levy captured everyone’s heart in “Schitt’s Creek” than he began appearing on ads for M&Ms and Tostitos (with McKinnon). Tracee Ellis Ross is one of the joys of ABC’s “black-ish,” but it’s a bit deflating to see Ross deploy her marvelously expressive face on behalf of Lay’s potato chips. (Ross was also in the Mountain Dew ad with Cranston.)

Liev Schreiber’s stellar reputation as an actor somehow survived his painful Boston accent in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” But I’m not sure it can survive that Mattress Firm ad in which Schreiber rides down a street on a mattress while gruffly informing viewers: “We’ve got a problem, America: Junk sleep.” What say we add junk commercials to the list?


Seeing respected performers playing in the same arena occupied by the likes of the Geico gecko triggers an inward groan. It’s akin to getting news of yet another gratuitous movie sequel or misguided TV show reboot, or hearing a beloved pop song repurposed as the soundtrack to a commercial for prescription medications and cars and everything under the sun. (Yes, I know, that ship also sailed long ago.)

Shouldn’t there be a kind of unwritten contract between entertainer and fan that stipulates you won’t mess with our memories? My affection for David Ortiz runs deep, but when it comes to TV commercials I wish that Big Papi would demonstrate more of the pitch selection that landed him in the Hall of Fame this week.

Back in 1994, John Travolta revived his career with “Pulp Fiction,” partly on the strength of that fabulous scene where Travolta dances the Batusi with Uma Thurman, his V-shaped fingers moving across his eyes. It was much less fun to see Travolta replicating that dance while attired as Santa Claus in a Capital One credit card ad with “Pulp Fiction” costar Samuel L. Jackson.

Do you have fond recollections of “Wayne’s World”? Were they a little harder to hold onto after Mike Myers and Dana Carvey resurrected their basement-dwelling slackers for an Uber Eats commercial? Were you a fan of Shaquille O’Neal during the years he dominated the NBA? Are those images now competing with images of Shaq hawking Dove for Men, Gold Bond, Icy Hot, Pepsi, Buick, Burger King, and numerous other products and companies (more than 50 since he retired, according to USA Today).


A lot of stars are enriching themselves and undermining themselves at the same time. Doing commercials fattens their bank accounts, but being ubiquitous in commercials can eclipse, or even effectively become, their careers.

When you think of character actor par excellence J.K. Simmons, do you smile at the memory of his many indelible onscreen portrayals, including his William Frawley on “Being the Ricardos”? Or does that soul-deadening “We are Farmers” jingle for the Farmers Insurance company immediately worm its way into your ear? When you think of Amy Poehler, do you think of the endearingly idealistic Leslie Knope in “Parks and Recreation,” or of Poehler randomly popping up in other people’s homes in those Xfinity ads? Or consider Jennifer Aniston, who suffers from a case of over-exposure thanks to her ubiquity in TV commercials.

Perhaps the key is to be heard but not seen. Amid so many misfires, it’s a genuine kick to hear Brian Cox doing the voice-overs for McDonald’s in the vaguely threatening manner of Logan Roy. I’m waiting for the day when HBO airs an episode of “Succession” where Logan cuts short a business meeting not with his trademark “[Expletive] off!” but instead with “Ba-da-ba-ba-bah.” But for the most part, when it comes to celebrity product-hawkers, I’m hatin’ it.


Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.