Celebrity sponsorship and endorsement is one of the oldest techniques for marketing products and promoting social issues.
However, when it all goes wrong, it can create a damaging issue for the celebrity and the corporate sponsor. And the real test for communication professionals is how the organization responds.
When South African athletics superstar Oscar Pistorius was arrested after the shooting death of his girlfriend, Nike had to instantly withdraw its association with a web advertisement which showed an image of the double amputee sprinter breaking out of the blocks, with the unfortunate caption “I am the bullet in the chamber”
Nike was also forced to act a few months earlier when it ended its relationship with drug-cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong. However, when Tiger Woods’ serial philandering was exposed in 2009, Nike was one of the few sponsors who stood by the golfer while others almost tripped over each other in the rush to abandon the fallen champion.
The challenge of how best to respond to a sponsorship crisis was highlighted when Joel and Benji Madden of the punk-pop band Good Charlotte were announced as spokesmen for a summer burger promotion by KFC in Australia. Within hours, internet sleuths gleefully revealed that Benji had previously been a vegetarian, and that the band had supported demonstrations by the aggressive animal rights group PETA, which has managed a long-running campaign against KFC for alleged cruelty to chickens.
The corporate response was instructive, if not enlightening. KFC issued a brief statement: “Prior to entering into our agreement they advised us that they have not been PETA activists or vegetarians.”
Unfortunately, at the same time, Benji Madden was busy confirming that he HAD been a vegan but abandoned it “for dietary reasons” and that he “got pretty hot “ for the PETA cause but later decided to “quietly bow out from the organization.”
Not an important issue in the big scheme of things, but an awkward distraction from KFC’s big launch, and a trigger for endless social media sniping about the ethics of marketing, not to mention an opportunity for unhelpful headlines such as “Sold out for a poultry sum” (The Age). KFC never really explained what had happened, and as US crisis commentator Erik Bernstein remarked: “Thanks to some less-than stellar research, KFC is getting its spokesperson with a large side of embarrassment.”
Such embarrassment is hardly new. In January it was revealed that former Australian cricketer Shane Warne had been booked for driving 53km/h over the speed limit in Scotland just weeks after fronting a road safety campaign for the Victorian Transport Accident Commission. And of course Warne was famously sprung in 1999 having a quick cigarette while being paid a reported $200,000 by a nicotine patch producer to give up smoking.
The problem here is not that celebrities will act unwisely – that’s almost part of the persona. The problem is that corporations need to respond more thoughtfully and effectively to protect their own reputation.