Portrayal as racism victim fails to sway image experts
The striking portrayal of O.J. Simpson as a victim not only raised questions late last week on how it would affect the jury's deliberations, but also on how effectively a person's image can be recast.
Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. in closing arguments portrayed the accused murderer as a target of "genocidal racism." There are clear indications that this image reflects the mood of some Americans. National surveys have shown most African-Americans feel Mr. Simpson is innocent of the June 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, while most whites believe he's guilty.
Mr. Simpson is obviously worried his name will be exploited, win, lose or hung jury. More than a year ago, his attorneys moved to protect his name. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is expected to rule soon on Mr. Simpson's application, filed in July 1994, to protect his full name as well as "O.J." and "The Juice." His attorneys have filed more than 50 lawsuits against retailers who are selling T-shirts, watches and other items bearing his name or likeness.
But Mr. Simpson's concern appears to be excessive, and the reshaping of his image into that of a victim of a racism-fueled conspiracy probably won't enhance his stature much, even among marketers serving the African-American populace. Advertising Age found no major marketers targeting that $260 billion segment who would find him a desirable spokesman.
"His marketability is minus one, close to zero," said Bob Dilenschneider, principal of the Dilenschneider Group, New York.
"I can't imagine someone using him to promote anything," said Caroline Jones, president of Caroline Jones Advertising, New York, which specializes in targeting African-Americans. "If he gets an acquittal, that's just the jury's opinion; there's still a whole lot of public opinion out there that thinks he's guilty."
Mr. Simpson and Ms. Jones own apartments in the same New York City building, and she said she invited him to holiday parties. "He was a friendly guy," Ms. Jones said.
Before the killings, the pro football Hall of Famer was well-known for his Hertz commercials. Those ads ended in 1990, but Mr. Simpson still had a relationship with Hertz Corp. up until his arrest. Earlier, he endorsed products for Chevrolet, Wilson Sporting Goods and Royal Crown Cola Co.
While some speculate that small marketers seeking to take advantage of Mr. Simpson's notoriety would be willing to use him if they could afford it, most agree using him would be out of the question.
"His persona will be tainted," said Byron Lewis, chairman-CEO of UniWorld Group, which specializes in minority marketing. "He won't emerge as an all-American hero, lionized by corporate America as he was. There's enough doubt and circumstantial evidence, as well as the underside of him they uncovered."
Mr. Lewis added: "We've never considered O.J. as a potential spokesman [for the African-American community] because he works in the general market. He lost all aspects of color and would never be used for targeting."
But prospects seem to improve when Mr. Simpson's potential as a sportscaster, writer, actor or radio host is considered.
"There are examples all over of defendants--innocent and guilty--who've come back into society," said Jeff Lee, president of Black Entertainment TV Networks. Mr. Lee added he could be interested in Mr. Simpson, if acquitted, as a possible sports reporter. BET currently covers some college football games.
Mr. Simpson worked for NBC Sports from 1989 through January '94.
"All he has to do is write another book," said Faith Morris, VP-managing director of public relations for Burrell Communications, Chicago.
Mr. Simpson's "I Want to Tell You," published by Little, Brown & Co. in January, was on The New York Times best-seller list from Feb. 12 through April 16. The publisher wouldn't comment on whether it has an option on Mr. Simpson's next book, but he is reportedly working on one.
"I don't think he's going to be on a box of Wheaties, but he can probably lecture, act," Mr. Lewis said. "Look at Divine Brown, who was with Hugh Grant--this woman is doing commercials and getting acting offers. You can't account for commercial instincts."
Not surprisingly, Mr. Simpson was the No. 1 topic in the modern era of talk radio, according to an ongoing subject study by industry publication Talkers Magazine.
"Simpson could be one of the hottest talk personalities around," said Michael Harrison, Talkers' editor. "Controversy is the name of the game in talk radio and to a greater extent in modern media."
Still, Mr. Harrison questioned how long such a show would have appeal.
Robert Hudson, VP-marketing at Johnson Products, a skin products marketer targeting African-Americans, said the problem with Mr. Simpson going into radio or writing is that it amounts to exploitation. "They are not buying into O.J. Simpson the celebrity or the ex-football star," he said. "They are buying into O.J. Simpson the accused murderer."
But Ms. Jones said that could be his hook: "If he's innocent, it makes a great book and an even better movie. If he's guilty though, he'd better start knitting doilies and handling them through the mail."
Contributing to this story: Keith J. Kelly, Jeff Jensen, Andrea Sachs, Raymond Serafin, Barbara Bosch and Pat Sloan.
Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.