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Why the George Foreman Grill Matters (Again)

The celebrity endorsement used to be dignified. Then it worked. 

In 1994, George Foreman, the two-time world heavyweight champion and minister in The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, put his ornate, squiggly signature on an electric grill designed by Tsann Kuen USA and sold by Salton Incorporated then went on basic cable – so basic, so cable – to underscore that endorsement.  

“It’s so good, I put my name on it!”

A few years later, Foreman claimed he was pulling in $8 million per month selling what came to be known as the George Foreman Grill (short for Lean Mean Grilling Machine). The champ moved hundreds of millions of units, so many that his legacy now has less to do with his uppercut than with his reported 40% cut of profits.

And it’s worth restating that he really did put his name on the thing. In so doing, he pioneered not just endorsements, but collaborations (Foreman x Grill), and partnerships. The grill itself seems like kitsch now – though it’s actually a very good product – but it’s an important artifact in the #ad age. It reminds us where we came from and, curiously, may tell us where we’re going.

This week, Foreman gets a victory lap with Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. The new Sony Pictures biopic (on which Foreman himself served as executive producer) stars Khris Davis (Judas and the Black Messiah) as the boxer and focuses on his return to the ring in 1987. The film cheekily nods to his business cred in a scene with a money manager explaining that the “funny little grill deal you signed is starting to generate some substantial checks.”

It’s a throwaway line in a movie unlikely to see a massive return at the box office that winks at the importance of what Foreman did. He walked so Ryan Reynolds – who owns a reported 25% of Mint Mobile, which is being sold to T-Mobile for $1.35 billion – could run.

“The partnership between George Foreman and the grill was so successful that it’s hard to think of any competitor in the indoor grill space,” says Ronn Torossian, founder and chairman of 5W Public Relations. “While celebrity endorsements had been successful before, it completely changed the way both brands and celebrities thought about and approached these partnership opportunities, and raised the bar for future possibilities.”

Cut to the present. Brands are milking well-known personalities for every impression, but (Rihanna and Fenty Beauty aside) celebrities who leave an indelible mark on a product are hard to find. Corporate entities are leveraging audiences, along with the data analytics to prove them, and largely dealing under the table. And they are negotiating better terms by exploiting the not-quite-celebrity “influencer” market (expected to grow to $30.81 billion in 2023) on TikTok and Instagram, where “stars” work for chump change (i.e., a few thousand bucks per post). That market has weakened the bargaining position of major celebrities and major athletes. It’s worth noting that Logan Paul was an influencer before he became a boxer and the marketing muscle behind the viral “hydration” drink PRIME. The squared circle was just another platform.

“Brands need to be careful not to oversaturate these [social media] feeds with partnerships,” Torossian says. “If you do, you risk overexposing your brand and tiring out consumers.”

To combat consumers’ sponsorship weariness, a new strategy has taken hold on Madison Avenue, favoring synergistic celebrity cosigns like Lil Nas X x Coach, Lady Gaga x Dom Perignon, and Pete Davidson x Calvin Klein. 

“We’re seeing a shift from just slapping the likeness of the celebrity on the product toward a more collaborative partnership, giving the artist creative control on how they want this partnership to come to life,” says AJ Pulvirenti, senior strategist at the creative agency Movers+Shakers. “Lady Gaga made mini-music films in support of her partnership, and Pete Davidson literally ran the Calvin Klein Instagram handle, posting whatever he wanted for 24 hours. It needs to be mutually, creatively beneficial for all parties.”

Pulvirenti shouts out the singularly savvy combination of weirdo R&B pop star Doja Cat and Taco Bell. In another era, the chain might have reached for a more middlebrow idol. Far from immune to her own controversies, Doja Cat (let’s not forget, once the humble “bitch, I’m a cow”-rapping artist behind the viral hit “Mooo!”) has been able to tap into priceless passion for crunchy, stoner-friendly faux-Mexican fast food.

“Doja Cat has expressed love for the brand for years, most notably in regards to their Mexican Pizza offering. The brand took note, inviting her to be the spokesperson for the menu item’s return to the restaurant through a brilliant marketing plan: platform-native TikToks that resonated with her audience, a punchy Super Bowl commercial, and her internet-breaking Mexican Pizza shoutout at Coachella in 2022,” Pulvirenti says. “Overall, the brand took what they (and the world) love about Doja the most and blew that out through a partnership that just made sense.”

Genuine plays.

There were plenty of people in 1994 who thought that George Foreman had invented a grill. No one thinks Beyoncé is inspecting the ethics of Tiffany and Co’s diamond supply chain. That’s in part because consumers have gotten savvier and in part because brands don’t want consumers to think that way. It no longer serves their purpose. 

But Doja Cat does eat at Taco Bell.

Still, perfect partnerships only come once in a while. There’s Clooney’s reportedly $40 million Nespresso deal, and David Beckham’s bulging Armani underwear contract from the aughts, which netted him a reported $41.43 million. But a lot of partnerships have become inorganic. Celebrities chase the upside, but don’t want accountability. Most don’t put their name on the product.

“For new, or unestablished brands, celebrities can provide instant credibility or trust by banking on their reputation equity,” says Greg Hahn, cofounder and chief creative officer of Mischief @ No Fixed Address. “We saw that a lot with crypto companies using celebrities like Matt Damon or Larry David during the Super Bowl. It’s a tactic that’s been used a lot in other kinds of risky categories that come with a lot of skepticism. Like, ‘I’m not sure what a second mortgage is, but if Tom Selleck says it’s a good thing…’”

Matt Damon, who advertised FTX before it was outed as a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme has since apologized for not doing his diligence. Interestingly, that has been (more or less) that. If George Foreman grills had burned people – Tracy Jordan encountered this problem hawking a similar product on 30 Rock – that would have reflected poorly on him. But in a darker age, reflections dim.

And there’s risk on both sides; the outrage-a-minute speed at which celebrities are subsumed in scandal makes it riskier than ever to closely align a brand with a famous name. Q Scores are drowned out by online noise. Case in point: Travis Scott. Once hip-hop’s branded golden boy, Scott lost his shine after a deadly tragedy at his 2021 Astroworld Festival. Nike and General Mills backed out of the radiation zone as fast as they could. Researchers at UC Davis estimated that shareholders of Nike, Gatorade, and other Tiger Woods sponsors lost a collective $5 to $12 billion in 2009 when the public learned about all those cocktail waitresses.

That kind of money can sink even well-capitalized businesses. The risk isn’t worth it without a certain amount of vetting or a stick-sized carrot. Many of the celebrities now publically hawking products have stakes in the companies they support. Reynolds is the standard bearer, but Ashton Kutcher got there first with Katalyst Media, investing in film and TV productions (including his own Punk’d), and A-Grade Investments, which turned early bets on Uber and Airbnb into a $250 million empire. Rappers 50 Cent and Nas are also low-key, high-caliber venture capitalists. 

These celebrities don’t sign the product. They sign for equity. Like Foreman, they endorse in a literal sense. The financial engineering has just become more complicated. An equity waterfall has replaced the “substantial check.”

Looking back on the Foreman Grill, it’s clear that what it most resembles isn’t a panini press; it’s a term sheet. Foreman didn’t see the future coming, but he understood that his loopy penmanship was a straight line to profit. He understood the simplicity of putting his name on it. Over time, the simple thing tends to make a comeback – and it tends to win.