HOW HERTZ HURTS

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If there's any redeeming value to the unprecedented interest in the O. J. Simpson murder case, it's that the crime of spousal abuse is going to be taken more seriously from now on, and that news media and advertisers are asking basic, constructive questions about the full range of their responsibilities.

Last week in this space we focused on corporate America's role in dealing with celebrities signed to do endorsement work. Since then, we've heard from Hertz Corp., the one company forever linked to Mr. Simpson's success as a pioneering TV ad spokesman.

In discussing the marketer's proper role in dealing with the celebrities hired to appear in ads and for promotional public relations work, we asked, "If the man's record of spousal abuse was not treated seriously enough by the court, what can be said of the business community's response?" We meant: "What response?"

And last week we learned more about why Hertz continued to use Mr. Simpson after he pleaded no contest to wife beating in 1989.

Hertz confessed to a limited curiosity; it said its conversations with both Mr. and Mrs. Simpson "led us to believe that what had occurred had been greatly exaggerated. The very light sentence imposed by the court upon O.J. and the relative lack of press coverage confirmed to us that our assessment was correct [italics ours]. Had we known what we now know, our decision in 1989 would have been quite different."

In light of recent events, this is a chilling confession.

Marketers should realize now, finally, that they can no longer link their responsibilities so closely to public pressure and the media's "play"-or lack of play. Nor should they limit their inquiries when a scandal breaks. They should talk to police, to prosecutors, to doctors, not just the celebrity.

Should the press have made more of the Simpson story in 1989? Assuming the answer is yes, recall what goes on when news media stay with a scandal more than 15 minutes. How quickly charges of media sensationalism are heard. And whose side would corporate America, including Hertz, and the public, have taken?

But are the media the issue? Isn't the point really that Hertz-and all other marketers who hire mere mortals to represent them in advertising and promotion-must be prepared to do the right thing all the time, not only when the media are watching?

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