Celebrities must mind manners to keep endorsements

Would you buy a product if the celebrity spokesperson were involved in a scandal? Companies tend to believe they will lose market share if they are associated with celebrities whose reputations are questionable.

Would you buy a product if the celebrity spokesperson were involved in a scandal? Companies tend to believe they will lose market share if they are associated with celebrities whose reputations are questionable.

Celebrity testimonials became a major aspect of advertising in the '80s, with names like Madonna gaining lucrative endorsement contracts. Corporations are willing to pay substantial amounts of money to prominent personalities so that consumers will relate the brand with their favorite star, and, thus, will be more likely to buy the product. The buying public imparts credibility to the celebrity because of his or her charisma, as well as the credibility that comes with prominence in the media. The power of a spokesperson's personality also entails risks for the brand with which he or she is associated because any controversial behavior might reflect badly on the product. This has become an especially frequent problem in recent times.

Whoopi Goldberg, for example, lost her Slim Fast contract due to her abrasive remarks regarding the President. The people at Slim Fast did not want their brand associated with a personality embroiled in controversy who was likely to upset people by insulting a respected figure. In 1989, Pepsi dropped Madonna for her "sacrilegious" video for Like a Prayer. McDonald's allowed Kobe Bryant's contract with it to lapse after a woman accused him of rape. After allegedly entering a special treatment program for anorexia, Mary-Kate Olsen vanished from the "Got Milk?" campaign. Hip-hop star Ludacris became another Pepsi casualty when executives heard Bill O'Reilly remark about the obscenity of the rapper's lyrics and decided he wasn't beneficial for the soda's reputation.

Sometimes celebrities become indignant when they lose an endorsement due to remarks they made or other forms of expression in which they indulged, as if their freedom of speech has been violated. Goldberg felt she was being "punished" for speaking freely. The First Amendment says nothing about having an inherent right to multimillion dollar deals, just that the state cannot prosecute you for the content of your expression. On the other hand, if the state were to dictate Slim Fast's ad campaign by forcing the company to retain Goldberg, that would be a violation of Slim Fast's rights.

For many years, celebrities like Goldberg have made enviable amounts of money from endorsements, but now that they are getting axed so frequently, they may need to take caution if they want to keep this source of revenue. Celebrities are not so irreplaceable and unique. Companies fed up with prominent scandals can easily resort to lesser-known actors who have not accumulated a reputation, bad or otherwise. Advertisers can even employ animated or animal mascots, who have absolutely no independent life of their own, and thus will not ever bring shame upon the company name. Thus, household names who lose their reputation might also lose their big advertising money to, let's say, Tony the Tiger. This phenomenon brings to mind what Cassius said in Shakespeare's Othello, "O, I have lost my reputation!... and what remains is bestial."

Superstars have to make a choice when it comes to endorsements. They have to realize that companies have reasons for keeping them, and for getting rid of them. If celebrities want to do as they please, they cannot expect companies to put up with everything they do and keep on paying them. Eminem lives by his own rules, and companies never hire him for endorsements; but he doesn't seem to care. Those who care about the exposure and money associated with endorsement deals must cultivate a good reputation, maintaining healthy, controversy-free public personae. Otherwise, we will keep seeing more and more stars disappearing from the ad campaigns in which we have become accustomed to seeing them.

  • Michael Levine is the founder of Los Angeles-based PR firm Levine Communications.

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