With a single, revealing photo taken by Annie Leibovitz for June's Vanity Fair magazine, the 15-year-old Disney starlet all but hoisted herself aloft with a sign that read, "Hit me! I have candy inside!" Many of the world's bloggers, journalists and parents grabbed their clubs.
Marketing executives who regularly deal in celebrity, as well as crisis-PR experts who specialize in protecting it, were taken aback at the heights the Cyrus scandal reached in the press and blogosphere. Some even posited it was, in fact, her billion-dollar value to Disney that caused both the company and Ms. Cyrus to overreact to the photo -- which, contrary to a report in The New York Times and elsewhere, did not show Ms. Cyrus bare-breasted.
"It's rather tame," said David Weisswasser, managing director of the New York-based Platinum Rye, a top provider of celebrity talent and music licensing for Fortune 500 companies and ad agencies. "And I am sure it seemed [to her parents and management] like an incremental movement in her public image: Everybody has a transition to make, from 'pop tart' to musician and artist."
He added: "That said, it's clearly not what Disney wants her to do."
What's at stake? Quite a lot, for both Ms. Cyrus and Disney.
She made Billboard's list of the 20 top-earning artists of 2007 in the No. 11 spot, with $64 million from her CD sales and tour receipts; according to Pollstar, her "Best of Both Worlds Tour" grossed $36 million last year.
But the tour -- which has her performing both as Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana -- also highlights a central challenge for Ms. Cyrus: How to make the transition from Disney character to an artist with broad appeal who can stand -- and brand -- alone, as she eventually will need to.
No one, no matter how successful, can stay 15 forever.
Experts who track the power of celebrity disagree on how much damage has been done to Ms. Cyrus, who's apologized to her fans and says she was "embarrassed" by the Leibovitz photo.
Even Ms. Leibovitz has offered her own, albeit circumspect, apology, saying that she was "sorry that my image of Miley has been misinterpreted."
Mr. Weisswasser said he believes she "has not hurt her brand."
But Jason Michelotti, director of brand development at Davie Brown Talent in Portland, Ore., disagrees.
Mr. Michelotti helps research the Davie Brown Index, an independent assessment tool for brand marketers and agencies that determines a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent. The index involves a 1.5 million-member consumer research panel that evaluates a celebrity's awareness, appeal and relevance to a brand's image, as well as the celeb's influence on consumer buying behavior.
Mr. Michelotti said that while Ms. Cyrus' overall awareness has increased by nearly three percentage points (an astonishing 97.1% of teens 13 to 17 can recognize her name or face), she has been hurt in a demographic she can't yet afford to alienate: people old enough to be her parents and, by extension, parents of her fans.
"Her fan base certainly doesn't think this is a big deal. She's apologized for it," said Maria Conti, director of celebrity services at Matter, Edelman's entertainment division. But "their parents think it's a big deal, and that's why advertisers are likely to be concerned."
Mr. Michelotti compared two Davie Brown surveys taken to measure public perception of Ms. Cyrus -- one on Feb. 20 and the other on April 30, after the news of the photos had broken on "Entertainment Tonight" and in newspapers around the globe -- and found that she'd lost points in a category that both brands and parents often value most: trust.
The Davie Brown Index compiled on Feb. 20 found that 57% of those surveyed between the ages of 35 and 54 considered Ms. Cyrus trustworthy. On April 30, when her attributes were measured again, only 47.8% said they found her trustworthy -- a drop of just over 9%.
For tweens who rely on moms and dads as ATMs, that could translate into a real decrease in Hannah Montana purchases.
Ms. Conti said one of her clients walked away from Vanessa Hudgens when nude photos of the "High School Musical" star circulated on the internet. The difference, of course, was that Ms. Hudgens actually was nude and had taken the photo herself.
Mike Sitrick, chairman of Sitrick & Co., the crisis-PR firm that advised Paris Hilton during her scandalous incarceration, said the time for apologies is over, and the parents of Hannah Montana can afford to go a little Tony Montana:
"I would have her parents go on the attack," he said. "I mean, she exposed no more of her body than would be seen in most junior prom dresses or even bathing suits. I would have her parents say, 'She's not even showing any private parts!'"
Mr. Sitrick added: "Am I missing something here? I have three daughters -- none of them rock stars, admittedly, but please. You can create a crisis where there was none; it depends how it's managed. I'd probably put her on "60 Minutes" or "20/20" and get it out of the way once and for all. She needs to say, 'This isn't how I live my life.'"
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Contributing: Michael Bush
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