What Would Gorbachev Wear?

The "ambassador" or "face" of the brand is an accepted weapon in the armory of the modern marketing team. And as customers, we are used to seeing movie, music and sports stars posing with their product of choice. It makes life easy for us and the brands. Wordy advertisements extolling the virtues of a product are at odds with today's almost bulimic acquisitiveness and our high-speed need to make snap decisions. Rather than pitching a complex message, it is far easier instead to communicate using celebrity shorthand.

Speaking for myself, I enjoy being seduced by these images. For instance, I use Nintendo Brain training and am reassured to see that Nicole Kidman is now its face. My longstanding consumption of two double Nespressos each morning is vindicated not merely by the convenience and taste of the product but by the decision to pay George Clooney to advertise it. The cost of recruiting a proper 24-karat Hollywood star may well be steep, but it is amortized thanks to a global constituency: after all, George Clooney means much the same in Macau as in Manhattan.

The higher up the luxury scale you climb, the more complex and intriguing the role of celebrity becomes—the more real and convincing the relationship between the personality and the product, the endorser and the endorsee, needs to be. Look at watches, for instance. Jay-Z has forged a close relationship with Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet and released limited-edition watches signed by him and accompanied by a special preloaded iPod engraved with the deathless aphorism: "I'm so far ahead of my time I'm about to start another life/Look behind you, I'm about to pass you twice." Tiger Woods plays golf and wears a special Tag Heuer watch designed for his needs. And John Travolta's passion for flying is at the forefront of his promotional work for the aviation watch brand Breitling.

But where do luxury-goods brands go when they have plundered music, sports and film for promotional purposes? Happily, greater minds than mine have pondered this question. The answer is that once they have been through "popstrels," athletes and thespians, they then go into politics. This autumn's trophy ambassador is the former head of state. Today's quondam international leader does not go quietly, retreating into the background to write his memoirs or accept discreet well-remunerated directorships. The modern ex-prime minister is as much a celebrity as anyone else today, and they have upped the stakes in luxury-goods promotion.

Mikhail Gorbachev is advertising Louis Vuitton; a suitably statesmanlike image shows the former Soviet leader in the back of an elderly limo being driven along the Berlin wall—which he helped breach—with a rather snazzy Louis Vuitton monogrammed Keepall at his side.

In true cold-war style America has come up with a measured tactical response. Bill Clinton recently received a special Audemars Piguet Equation of Time wristwatch, an extremely handy timepiece that displays the discrepancy between solar and terrestrial time occasioned by the elliptical nature of the Earth's orbit. A limited number of these Bill Clinton-edition watches will be sold. Of course, the proceeds from Gorby's modeling debut and Bill's watch sales will benefit Green Cross Initiative and the Clinton Foundation, respectively.

It is an interesting development that taps into a new reservoir of promotional talent (perhaps instead of trying to sort out the Middle East, Tony Blair ought to be in talks with a fashion house). Moreover, it invites us to re-examine our relationship with luxury goods and see prestige products in a new light. It is, however, not totally without precedent … or do I mean president? After all, Ronald Reagan did advertise Chesterfield cigarettes ("the merriest Christmas any smoker can have"). But that was before he sat in the Oval Office.