Glass bottles of Evian water started popping up in some glamorous places last year and it seemed like there was always a camera nearby to capture the moment. Star magazine ran a photo of Hilary Swank at some cafe, a bottle of Evian perched on her table. Chris Noth of "Sex and the City" turned up in the tabloids, at an Oscar party, chugging away. So did Courteney Cox Arquette and Paris Hilton.
Evian sashayed into the glossies, too. Hampton magazine called it "the haute water of choice," while Heat magazine ran a photo of an Evian bottle on a page of beauty tips, right next to a shot of Gwyneth Paltrow. Gotham magazine canonized it in an "In" list. Twice.
Jonathan Cheban, in his SoHo office, works both sides of the velvet rope -- bringing together celebrity clients and product-placement clients to create a publicity windfall.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
How did a brand that was being crowded out by competitors, and fading, suddenly acquire so much celebrity cachet? The short answer is Jonathan Cheban, a 31-year-old New York PR man with great teeth, famous friends and a gift for manufacturing buzz, one flashbulb moment at a time. For a fee, Cheban will make sure your product lands in the hands of paparazzi magnets such as Paris Hilton, and then in the pages of gossip columns and celebrity magazines. He'll win you mentions in tastemaker publications, too, where your product will be name-dropped as the latest and the coolest.
In short, he makes stuff fabulous. It's pretty much fake fabulous, of course, the result of a business plan, not the genuine preferences of the glitterati, as it appears to the untrained eye. But that doesn't seem to matter.
"He got people talking about the brand and that talk translates into sales," says Kim Slicklein, the ad executive who hired Cheban as one part of a $10 million campaign for Evian. "He's the link. If we want to be anywhere that's hot and happening, Jonathan gets us there."
One of those places was the hit VH1 show "The Fabulous Life," which ran -- then re-ran, over and over -- a biography of Cameron Diaz. The opening shot superimposed an Evian bottle against the French Alps, as the exhilarated narrator described the water's 15-year journey from mountain aquifer to nearby springs. And guess what?
"Cameron Diaz loves it!" the narrator boomed, in a saucy British accent. "But not to drink. She washes her face with it!"
Cut to a shot of none other than Jonathan Cheban, sitting in a studio, identified as a "celebrity publicist." He's one of several regulars on "The Fabulous Life," on hand to goose the awe factor.
"Cameron Diaz really hates the water in L.A.," he says, looking to the side of the camera and sounding remarkably serious. Then he did the math: $3 per bottle, three times a day, every week. "That's very expensive, just to wash your face!"
It's tempting to call this advertising that money can't buy, but since Evian was paying Cheban at the time, that's not quite true.
"Creating an ad would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Slicklein, "and that's before we start buying air time. This show ran hundreds and hundreds of times, all over the world."
A Charm Offensive
Cheban is sitting in a TriBeCa sushi joint called Nobu, where the wait for a table is typically about a month long. He called at 5 p.m. and reserved a table for four, even though he needed a table for two.
"I can't stand the table for two," he says, settling into his seat and flagging down a waiter for a Diet Coke.