What Happens When Your SpokesCelebrity Goes to Jail?

In a speech acknowledging that changing technology and markets will force Canada's Global Communications Corp. to transform itself from a media company into a marketing company, Chief Executive Leonard Asper said, "Shows and personalities must become 'brands' that can be used to draw in audiences and create spin-offs such as CDs, books, and live performances."

Hmmm... personalities as brands? Sounds like a concept that could put Omnimedia out of business, but hardly a new idea. Celebrities were hocking cigars and patent medicines for local businesses as early as 1899. Today, about 20% of all television commercials feature a famous person from sports, TV, movies, or musical entertainment. Marketing people align their brands with celebrities because research has shown that customers are more likely to choose goods and services when they are endorsed by celebrities. Celebrities provide instant awareness and command immediate attention. Not a bad mix in this current world of sound bites, McNewspapers, and channel and web surfing.



The trouble with betting your brand equity on a personality is that they are too unpredictable. For every rock-solid Tiger Woods, there is a Rosie, a Michael, an O.J., or a Martha who can drive your brand into the ground. And there is no guarantee that Tiger won't pull a Kobe next Thursday. Who would have imagined that someone who regularly boffed Elizabeth Hurley and is sought after by 9 out of ten women in the world would get arrested for trying to buy, uh, oral services on the street? (Hugh Grant)

Although large companies don't have a problem spending megabucks to acquire famous personalities, most small companies struggle to afford them. And it is a bigger risk for smaller companies to bet on celebrities because their losses are greater if something does go wrong. For example, Nike was hardly fazed when police caught Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin in a local hotel room with drugs and prostitutes. Irvin was only a small part of Nike's endorsement scheme. However, there were 13 small Toyota dealerships that suffered tremendously. They had the Cowboys' star lined up to do a series of commercials worth about $500,000. Not only did they lose the money invested in Irvin and the ads, they also had to incur more expense by finding a replacement.

Over the years, celebrity endorsers have been involved in variety of brand-damaging scandals, including illegal drug use (tennis player Jennifer Capriati), shoplifting (actress Winona Ryder), steroid use (Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, amd half the Oakland Raiders), posing in the nude (former Miss America Vanessa Williams), and, well, murder (O.J. Simpson).

There was a time in American society when personalities could be counted on to be consistent contributors to a brand's public appeal (or at least a time when the media was working sufficiently hand in glove with studio publicists to keep misadventures at the "unconfirmed rumor" level). But thanks to the cult of personalities driven by starlet-filled TV shows and magazines, there is no corner of the world small enough to hide in any more. Jennifer Aniston takes a vacation to Mexico, does a little topless sunbathing - and suddenly her assets are tabloid front page. How fast did the sub-star-quality Paris Hilton's "sex" tape make it round and round the world via the Internet?

In the dog-eat-dog real world of brands, marketers seek to control all aspects of brand exposure, ensuring that advertising campaigns are appropriate and well targeted, that media coverage generated by the PR firm is consistent, that the trade show booth integrates nicely, and the brand's Web site marries into the overall communications concept, all governed by carefully crafted corporate design guidelines.

Toss into this billion-dollar recipe someone whose image can go south faster than Liz Taylor can gain weight, and you take a risk far outweighed by the celebrity showing up at the sales meeting, playing golf with the vendors, and telling the world, "I am one with this brand!"

Just ask Dan Brewster.

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