O.J. Simpson-"The Juice"-seemed to have it all, moving effortlessly from Heisman Trophy-winning college running back to legendary pro halfback to network sportscaster, actor and ad spokesman. He was named Advertising Age Star Presenter of the Year in 1977.
And what a spokesman he was. He hadn't appeared in commercials for Hertz Corp. for years, yet images of The Juice dashing madly through airports, sidestepping people and luggage the way he once dodged tacklers, remain a vivid link with the car rental company for most of America.
Most recently, Mr. Simpson, 46, sprinted onto the information superhighway, appearing in a 30-minute infomercial for Interactive Network.
But then, something went horribly wrong.
First-degree murder charges were filed last Friday morning against Mr. Simpson for the June 12 stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and restaurant waiter Ronald Goldman.
But it was 10 excruciating hours later before Mr. Simpson surrendered to police at his Los Angeles area mansion following a 75-minute freeway pursuit.
After the legendary "O.J." was taken into custody and put on suicide watch, everyone-from sports fans to Hertz, NBC and others for whom he worked-tried to find answers to what commentators were fast to call one of the most bizarrely complex American tragedies ever.
Marketers were quick to pull back from the nightmare. Initially, Hertz refused to even acknowledge Mr. Simpson had been a spokesman, issuing a terse "No comment" to all questions. In fact, he did his first ad for the company in 1975.
When charges were filed Friday, the company issued a prepared statement saying it was "shocked and saddened by this development," adding, "Obviously, Hertz has no plans to utilize Mr. Simpson in advertising."
The filing of criminal charges prompted Interactive Network to pull its infomercial, said Susan Baldwin, public relations director for the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based interactive TV service available only in Chicago and San Francisco.
Even though Mr. Simpson was featured in the infomercial for only 90 seconds, "We're going to pull it," she said. "We have to be sensitive. Some people will be horrified with all this."
"This is the most epic of human tragedies," Ms. Baldwin added.
Time-Life Books pulled the pro football Hall of Famer off the cover of a book about to be released on Heisman Trophy winners.
Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, where Mr. Simpson has worked since 1990, called it "a tragic situation for all involved .*.*. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Simpson family."
As questions swirled about the deaths and Mr. Simpson's role, sports and celebrity marketing companies pondered the impact that the likely downfall of yet another celebrity would have on their business.
"I've seen a decline in the use of celebrities in commercials going back to 1988," said Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network, Chicago. She listed many celebrities who have been caught up in controversies, including Michael Jackson, Jennifer Capriati and Mike Tyson.
"It's adding up," she said.
But Mr. Simpson is different. Unlike other high-profile celebrities and sports figures who have been hit by criminal allegations, he has been working as a star endorser for years.
Besides the Hertz ads, Mr. Simpson also endorsed TreeSweet Products Co.'s orange juice, Acme Boot Co.'s Dingo boots and Hyde Athletic Industries' Spot-Bilt athletic shoes. He has also been a national spokesman for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet division, Foster Grant sunglasses, Schick shavers, Royal Crown Cola Co. and Wilson Sporting Goods.
Mr. Simpson hadn't starred in Hertz ads for years, said Ken Olshan, chairman-CEO of Wells Rich Greene BBDP, New York, Hertz's agency since 1989. But Hertz did bring him back to TV for a short-term promotional spot in 1992.
"O.J. has a high recognition and a lot of respect among business people," so Hertz resurrected him as a spokesman, he said.
The respect Mr. Simpson engendered extended to others who had worked with him.
"I'm shocked obviously. I got to know him pretty well," said Murray Gaylord, exec VP-director of account services for TBWA, New York, and formerly an account supervisor on the Hertz business when it was with Scali, McCabe, Sloves. "It's hard to believe; what else can I say? The guy has such an image of a classy, very likable guy. He's a terrific spokesperson. He ... always gives autographs. If he's guilty, people would be shocked."
Even if Mr. Simpson is cleared of the charges against him, his future as an endorser could disappear because of the greater publicity now being given reports he earlier abused Ms. Simpson before their divorce, celebrity marketing companies said. He pleaded no contest in 1989 to charges of beating Ms. Simpson; the couple, married in 1985, divorced in 1992.
Mr. Simpson's contracts likely include a morals clause giving advertisers an out if he's charged or convicted of a crime or falls into general disrepute.
Hertz's early response dismayed many in the marketing community, who were interviewed before charges were filed.
"They obviously don't want to be dragged into any criminal proceedings, and there's some possibility they could be called to testify as part of his alibi," said David Carlin, a New York attorney specializing in advertising and entertainment.
"Normally, an advertiser would say something like `We wish him well' or `We hope it turns out for the best.' Hertz could hurt themselves if they behave poorly and O.J. turns out to be a victim ... He generally is held in high regard," he said.
"Not admitting to something that is self-evident is kind of silly," said Marc Perman, director of the sports celebrity department of J. Michael Bloom Associates, New York. Gary Levin and Joe Mandese contributed to this story.