O.J. CASE CASTS PALL ON ENDORSERS

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The case of O.J. Simpson, who went from popular sportscaster and spokesman to accused murderer in the twinkling of an eye, is giving the celebrity marketing business the chills.

Playboy Enterprises was among several companies that abandoned or put on hold projects involving Mr. Simpson.

Hertz Corp. finally responded to a week's worth of questions as to why it didn't drop Mr. Simpson after he pleaded no contest to 1989 charges of beating his then wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. And agencies that specialize in finding spokesmen for marketers found themselves re-evaluating how they conduct background checks.

Mr. Simpson pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the June 12 deaths of his former wife and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

There was a time more than a decade ago when the Hall of Fame football hero, known as "The Juice," was a marketing giant, endorsing products for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet nameplate, Royal Crown Cola Co. and Wilson Sporting Goods. But for most people, O.J. will be forever synonymous with Hertz.

"That was the first really successful marriage of celebrity spokesperson and client/product, an unforgettable campaign that's a model in the sports marketing industry," said David Burns, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service, Chicago.

Mr. Simpson was less active as an endorser in recent years. The Sports Marketing Letter estimated his total annual income at a little more than $1 million. His $400,000-a-year sportscasting contract with NBC was up for renewal next year, while Hertz was paying him $550,000 annually in a deal that was to expire in 1997. His acting and entertainment work netted him around $100,000.

Companies that had recently procured Mr. Simpson's services continued to jump ship last week.

Playboy put on hold distribution plans for the "O.J. Simpson's Minimum Maintenance Fitness for Men" exercise video. Los Angeles Public Broadcasting Service station KCET cut Mr. Simpson from the June 25 edition of "For Goodness Sake," featuring celebrities in vignettes exploring ethical dilemmas.

But critics wonder why Mr. Simpson's endorsement work wasn't derailed by the '89 incident.

Hertz continued to use him in business-to-business print ads for its Hertz Claim Management Corp. subsidiary in 1991, and in TV ads aimed at business travelers in '92. Powerburst, a now defunct sports drink, broke a TV ad using "The Juice" in 1990. And MCI Communications Corp. featured Mr. Simpson's mother, Eunice, racing to the phone for a call from O.J. in a TV spot that broke last August.

Hertz responded last week with a statement: "When the incident occurred in 1989, conversations with both O.J. and Nicole 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 .*.*. It would now appear that this was part of a pattern of abusive behavior on the part of O.J. that had been completely unknown to us. Had we known what we now know, our decision in 1989 would have been quite different."

In the sports marketing industry, the Simpson scandal has hammered home the risks of using celebrity endorsers, more so than incidents involving Madonna, Michael Jackson or Mike Tyson. Mr. Burns said a potential client called last week seeking information on whether a basketball player had a police record.

Mr. Burns said that in the future, he will conduct more stringent background checks.

Lynn Merritt, a marketing manager at Nike Sports Management, the athlete representation division at Nike, said: "Even going back to Michael Jackson, companies interested in celebrity endorsements are doing more research and are more concerned about whom they do business with."

Sports marketing experts say advertisers in non-sports industries are likely to be more skittish, but most also note that sophisticated sports marketers like Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp. tend to be rather prudent.

"They usually negotiate pretty hard to get stringent morals clauses in contracts," said Frank Vuono, president of Integrated Sports International, a sports marketing company based in East Rutherford, N.J.

Agency executives say the fall of some celebrities makes using them as endorsers more difficult.

"Incidents involving the likes of an O.J. cause [consumers] to question who they can believe," said Jane Rinzler, director of youth marketing at Houston, Effler & Partners, Boston.

As a result, Ms. Rinzler said, advertisers have to become more creative in how they use celebrities, especially in speaking to media-savvy and cynical young people. In short: "The era of the I-use-this-and-so-should-you endorser is over."

Christy Fisher and Melanie Wells contributed to this story.

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