Ever wonder about the risk a company takes when hiring a celebrity endorser? Newsworthy scandals occur so often the public may find themselves almost jaded to them. It's serious business to advertisers, however, who invest millions of dollars on the squeaky-clean reputations of stars in the spotlight. Just ask Hertz, which found themselves the unwilling sponsor of an accused murderer in O.J. Simpson.
Or Campbell's Soup, who sponsored Nancy Kerrigan when she fell victim to the shameless attack instigated by Tonya Harding. More recently, Mariah Carey was admitted to the hospital with a so-called "nervous breakdown", and Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise went their separate ways in a scandal that vilified Cruise and made Kidman look like a pious saint.
Over the years, celebrity endorsers have been involved in many different kinds of scandals, including illegal drug use (tennis player Jennifer Capriati), shoplifting (actress Winona Ryder), steroid use (Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson), posing in the nude (former Miss America Vanessa Williams), being stabbed (tennis player Monica Seles), and being HIV positive (basketball player Magic Johnson).
What are companies to do when their celebrity endorser becomes involved in a scandal? Researchers at the University of Washington suggest that the reaction of companies associated with celebrities should depend on the blameworthiness of the product endorser. That is, how a product endorser is viewed by the public is important. If the celebrity is viewed as being to blame for the scandal, the associated company should cut their losses and fire the spokesperson.
Some examples are O.J. Simpson for the alleged murders of his ex-wife and her friend, Tonya Harding for hatching the plot to injure Nancy Kerrigan, and Tom Cruise, who was viewed as responsible for his separation from Kidman because of his affair with Penelope Cruz.
On the flip side of blame is sympathy. If the scandal generates a lot of sympathy for the celebrity, it can actually be good for the fame of the star, and can strengthen the positive link between celebrity and company. Some examples are Monica Seles after being attacked by a fan, Nancy Kerrigan, who was seen as the victim of her attack, and Mariah Carey, who's breakdown was seen as a cause of her hard work ethic.
What have companies done in the past in response to scandalous events? For celebrities that are blameworthy for scandals, the credo is "lie low" and wait until the scandal disappears from the news before quietly firing the celebrity (typically, the company doesn't renew the endorser's contract). For companies sponsoring a highly blameworthy celebrity (for example., O.J Simpson or Tonya Harding), stronger action is often warranted. In these cases the company often makes a public statement that distances the company from the endorser. For endorsers that are not culpable for their scandal (for example, Mariah Carey or Nicole Kidman), the company may even come out with a statement of support for their spokesperson, in effect strengthening the bond between celebrity and company.
In the aftermath of a scandal for which the endorser is highly culpable, the celebrity is not necessarily "blacklisted" forever, although it may take time before advertisers accept the celebrity back into the fold. Experts cite remarkable comebacks by Jennifer Capriati, John Travolta, and Magic Johnson. Such examples demonstrate the resilience of a celebrity's reputation as well as the fickleness of public opinion.
In short, the link between product endorser and company is a tenuous one which must be managed with diligence by a company that chooses to associate itself with a fundamentally imperfect human being.