"Consumers can relate to that person," said Dari Marder, chief marketing officer of Iconix Brand Group, home to Bongo, Candie's, OP and other fashion labels that feature endorsers such as "Keeping Up With the Kardashians'" Rob Kardashian, "The Osbournes'" Kelly Osbourne and "The Hills" alum Audrina Patridge. "There's an Everyman quality about reality stars."
The deals are often short-term, to take advantage of a star while he's hot and to part ways before he goes off the rails. (Even risk-averse marketers are willing to take a chance these days with potentially volatile stars, though, since fans seem to feed on their bad behavior).
Reality mavens are often heavy social media users, meaning their reach via Facebook, Twitter and other digital avenues far exceeds their TV time. Rob Kardashian has 2 million Twitter followers, and a recent tweet of his OP ad and retweet by his social networking sisters snagged millions of impressionable eyeballs.
There's near-constant coverage of these stars in Us Weekly and In Touch, TMZ, RadarOnline and elsewhere, stoking their popularity.
"The world has become more cluttered than ever, and brands are looking for any edge to separate themselves from their competitors," said David Schwab, managing director of Octagon First Call, which helps brands assess celebrity value for ad campaigns. "Reality stars drive awareness, and that's gold to a brand."
Television continues to pump out new reality personalities, enabling companies to find the perfect spokesperson to speak to a specific demographic.
For instance, Gerber Legendary Blades made a multi-year deal with "Man vs. Wild" host Bear Grylls for a survival gadget product line that carries his name. Grylls, who uses the knives exclusively in his Discovery channel series, takes home a piece of the sales, though the value is undisclosed.
"He's an adventurer, not just a TV star, and he was out there climbing Mt. Everest before the cameras were rolling," said Corey Maynard, Gerber's director of marketing. "He's different from a lot of reality stars who have very short windows in which they have any brand recognition at all, let alone credibility, if they ever had any. He's not just famous for being famous."
Philips Norelco chose to work with Guadagnino because the "Jersey Shore" cast member could reach out to the college crowd at the key back-to-school selling season. Known for his "short and tight" coif, he's a believable shill for do-it-yourself hair trimmers.
"He's very relevant to young male consumers — they want to hear recommendations from him," said Mike Schwartz, brand manager. "And he got massive amounts of media coverage for everything he did for us."
Do these deals move the needle? Marder and Maynard say they do, though for some marketers that can be a tougher question to answer. (Schwartz said he's still waiting on the data.)
"It's always up for debate whether the use of any celebrity sways consumer behavior," Reeder said. "But that's almost irrelevant in these cases. What's important is that you can grab a consumer's attention for 15 seconds."
USC's Young agreed, saying his informal on-campus research has shown him that young fans and even detractors are tuned in to what reality stars wear, buy and hawk.
"That's marketing heaven when even the people who don't like the shows care what kind of jeans the stars wear," Young said. "There's a good reason why reality people are called influencers."