Byline: Samantha Conti / With contributions from Alessandra Ilari

MILAN — He’s played every role from gigolo to gentleman, and now Richard Gere is starring as the resourceful Italian butler Ambrogio.
Gere and a string of other top names including Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford are pocketing millions plugging Italian products from sunglasses to spumante in ads that appear almost everywhere — except the U.S.
Hollywood stars have long boosted their income with lucrative ad campaigns fashioned mostly for the Japanese and other Asian markets. Now American actors are marching westward — and directly into Italy — where companies are waiting with open purses and high-quality, if sometimes silly, campaigns.
“Hollywood is the most vigorous industry in the world — on all levels. It influences people’s tastes, and its events echo throughout the world,” said Silvia Damiani, who just hired Brad Pitt to star in the ads for her family-run jewelry company.
There are other reasons for Italians’ latest love affair with Hollywood: “With e-commerce and the single currency, Italian companies, which have traditionally used local celebrities, want to appear less provincial, more global. What could be better than trading on the universal, cosmopolitan allure of a Hollywood actor?” said Luca Vercelloni of GPF & Associati, a research institute and consultancy here.
And while the Italians may not be as generous as the Japanese — who won’t blink at paying $4 million for a celebrity-focused campaign — they are more than willing to loosen their purse strings for a Hollywood face.
“Fees start at about six or seven figures and can go up to several millions of dollars depending on how long the ad is used and in how many countries,” said Reuben Igielko-Herrlich, an owner of the Geneva-based Propaganda, which specializes in product placement, special events and corporate advertising. “There is no rule, and no flat fee. Everything is negotiated.”
Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis were among the first to arrive in Italy. In 1997, Stone shot a Spumanti Martini ad in which she plays herself as an awards presenter on Oscar night. The ad was so popular that it has run every year since. Bruce Willis did the European print campaign for De Rigo’s Police sunglasses, which appeared in more than 60 countries, and he’ll be starring in the next campaign, which breaks later this year.
Agents for Stone, Willis and Gere refused to have their client’s images appear in an American newspaper.
Igielko-Herrlich added that American actors — whether they appear in films or ad campaigns — can boost the popularity of a brand in record time.
“Communication is a long-term strategy, so it’s hard to quantify the results of a specific campaign. One thing we’ve observed, however, is that consumers will walk into a store and ask for a specific product they’ve seen a star use on screen,” he said.
That’s one reason why the chocolate company Ferrero chose Richard Gere for its latest television campaign. Last year Ferrero, which makes Nutella and other sweets, needed a high-voltage TV campaign to replace the successful but long-running one for its Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The old ads starred the tireless Ambrogio, a chauffeur and butler, who regularly dispensed the elegant chocolates, wrapped in gold foil, to his socialite boss.
In the new ad, Gere plays himself and is watching La Traviata when he spots a young woman — clearly in need of a chocolate — sitting in the balcony of the theater. As if by magic, the chocolate appears in front of her. When the woman, who by then recognizes Gere, goes to thank him she says: “But aren’t you…?” and he replies: “Ambrogio.”
A Ferrero spokeswoman said the ad was by far the most popular in the history of the company. It was so successful, in fact, that the actor is filming a sequel that will air in Italy in September. As for Ferrero’s choice of Gere in particular, the spokeswoman said: “He’s elegant yet accessible — and he’s everyone’s Prince Charming.”
Acceleration is also the reason why Fiat chose to use Harrison Ford in its Lancia Lybra ads, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in its Alfa Romeo Sportwagon campaign, which broke here last week.
“Catherine Zeta-Jones is one of the hottest names in the world, and this is an international campaign. She will help accelerate awareness of the brand in the 17 European countries where the ad appears,” said Luca Lindner, chief executive of Conquest Network, which developed the ad.
While Fiat worked with another agency, Armando Testa, to create the Lancia ads, the idea behind both campaigns is the same: sleek image, speedy delivery.
The Lancia ad shows Harrison Ford reviving a dying plant by placing it on the passenger seat of the car and cruising on the open road. In print, he poses on thehood of the car with a caption that says: “It doesn’t matter how far you’ve traveled, just how.”
An Armando Testa spokesman said Fiat believes Ford embodies the rock-solid values of Europe’s “new middle class … which offers large growth potential for Lancia Lybra.”
It’s clear that actors’ primary motivation for doing the ads is money, but there are other reasons as well. And while all the actors mentioned declined to comment for this story, the Italian companies are proud to talk about why they chose to be in a specific campaign.
Ferrero said Gere donated his fee — a reported $1.4 million — to the cause to free Tibet. Damiani said Pitt walked into her store looking to buy a ring for his girlfriend Jennifer Aniston, and the two became friends. Ford, who has appeared in Japanese automobile and beer ads, told Italian newspapers last year that he’s proud of his publicity work: “I hope that the U.S. comes to accept the idea of actors appearing in TV ads.”
That might not be too long in coming: “I can understand that actors are protective of their images in their main market — the U.S. — and that one bad TV advertisement can be damaging,” said Federico Fasolino, a partner in Brw, one of Italy’s foremost advertising production companies. “On the flip side, a well-done campaign can actually be a vehicle to boost or relaunch a career,” he added.

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