IF you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you,” Jesus said to his disciples, demonstrating with one simple phrase the almighty power of name-dropping. Of all his teachings, it is perhaps the most widely followed, practiced religiously by prophets, politicians, and publicists. Yet if you are labeled a name-dropper, you may as well wear a tag that says: HELLO, MY NAME IS INSECURE ASSHOLE. “I do it because I have a small penis,” jokes New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who prefers to save his name-dropping for times when there is “a quick payoff, like the possibility of sex.”
Names can be the ultimate status symbols. As such, they should be collected and displayed—but you need to be discreet. Dropped names are like toupees: Badly done, they are obvious and show poor taste. Carefully deployed, however, they work wonders for your image. When you get a Jaguar XK, the impulse is to do laps with the top down and Snoop on the subwoofers, but the better move is to park it in the garage—with the door open.
Context is key to this delicate maneuver. “Ideally you want to steer the discussion to a subject and plant a seed, so you can name-drop in response,” says George Stephanopoulos. Witness the 1988 vice-presidential debate: When a young Dan Quayle compared himself to President Kennedy, Lloyd Bentsen came back with, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen not only broadcast to millions of Americans that he was B.F.F. with J.F.K., he made Quayle look like the dirty name-dropper.
Politicians make a point of knowing their audience; the average voter, for instance, cares more about Uncle Bob than about Bob Woodward. “Find out which names will strike a chord,” advises brand strategist and image consultant Morris Reid. When he wanted to impress a prominent entrepreneur, Reid mentioned that he once worked for one of the man’s heroes, the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. John Vlautin, a music publicist, recommends “cross-pollination”—referring to someone outside your business. “It gives you more cachet and makes you look well-rounded,” Vlautin says.
But keep it believable. If you go too far, people will think you’re either a liar or a delusional stalker who turned an across-a-crowded-restaurant celeb sighting into a close personal friendship. “The name has to seem like it’s coming out of your world,” Stephanopoulos says. Your goal is not to brag that you saw Bono but to suggest that Bono saw you. If you pull that off, then name-dropping becomes what the writer and director James Toback calls “name presentation,” like a letter of recommendation from a friend.
Toback knows that name-dropping is sometimes a matter of survival. He’s tight with Warren Beatty but still has a hard time casting a film until a marquee actor signs on. People need that assurance. “Who else are you talking to?” Niche Media CEO Jason Binn’s publicist asked me. I mentioned my other boldfacers, but she didn’t bite. Instead, she scrolled down her client list. “I can definitely get you Bob Dowling of the Hollywood Reporter,” she offered. “Will he be mentioned in the article?”