Ditch or Keep Your Embarrassing Cause Marketing Celebrity?

Uh-oh! Your A-list celebrity supporter just pulled a Tiger and embarrassed himself and his family on a tape first seen on TMZ and now airing on every screen on the planet. It seems like everywhere they point a camera, someone new is coming forward to say that they, too, did something appalling with your alpha celebrity.

(Cue Karl Malden VO) “What will you do? What will you do?"

Fire him? Disavow? Stand by her for as long as you can stand the heat?

A new study by Harris Poll suggests that maybe you do nothing.

Although there is a veritable cottage industry of celebrity trackers waiting for them to step outside without any makeup, or look less than flattering in their bikini, or utter a drunken calumny, or run over a paparazzi in their Mercedes, maybe none of that matters.

An Adweek Media/Harris Interactive Poll published Monday finds that three-quarters of Americans don’t impute any of the blame or think negatively of your brand as a result of your endorsers’ indiscretions.

Concludes the study, “while it might matter a little more to certain groups than others, in general, strong majorities of Americans say it really doesn't change how they feel about the brands. While it is understandable that the companies may not renew an endorsement deal, there doesn't seem to be any great need to pull current endorsements for fear of collateral damage.”

While I admire Harris' certitude, I’m less sure.

Celebrity media culture has become something like a morality tale.

Here’s how it plays out on, say, VH-1’s long-running series “Behind the Music.”
Band works hard and gets signed. Band sells millions of copies. Now idly-rich, the band indulges in vices like drugs, booze, and indiscriminate sex. The hits stop coming. The band breaks up. Some band members detox. Some don’t. One dies. Now, years later, the only whiff of remaining fame is on Behind the Music.
The celebrity magazines like to do a periodic feature on how actors do ordinary things like shop for dog food at the Ralph’s in Beverly Hills, just like you and me. Or they show celebrities with hammer toes, or crossed eyes, or before and after photos of the nose job, or the celebrity picking her newly-petite nose, or showing starlets at the Emmies in beautiful gowns stained by sweat.

For a long time, the photo editors have delighted in depicting celebrities with their faces screwed into the funniest… and most unflattering… looks. There’s a website that shows the photos of celebrities’ arrest mug shots. Many more websites specialize in photos like the one above of actress Katherine Heigl’s wardrobe malfunction at an entertainment industry event in March.

In other words, while the celebrity media often goes for the salacious, they are ultimately subverting celebrity, our obsession with it, and the excesses of its trappings.

Now, I personally have no problems with any of that.

But no matter Adweek/Harris’s conclusions, if I’m a company with a celebrity spokesman or a charity with a celebrity supporter I wouldn’t want my celebrity to become a cautionary tale.

Here’s why.

It’s exceedingly tricky to extrapolate from the general questions asked (and not asked!) in the Adweek/Harris to your very specific situation. It could certainly be, for instance, that people responded to this poll while suffering from a bad bout of ‘Tiger Fatigue.’ I know I am.

In my book this survey is properly used to start the conversation about how long to stay with an embarrassing endorser. Not end it.

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