SPONSORS CAN'T HIDE

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The O.J. Simpson case clearly poses a challenge to all companies entering into long-term endorsement and "corporate spokesperson" contracts with present and future sports and entertainment idols. We believe Mr. Simpson's conduct raises new and unyielding questions related to how best to blend individual and corporate responsibility when personal difficulties occur.

No longer is it enough for marketers to state that their interests are protected by a simple morals clause in a contract that can be invoked if and when the celebrity's behavior leads to bad publicity. There's more to it.

The Brentwood events remind us that business relationships also touch family members who are not parties to any "spokesman" contract. We should have recognized this in 1989, when Mr. Simpson made news by severely beating his wife.

Before that night, police had been called to the Simpson home a number of times. Finally, Mrs. Simpson, fearing for her life, wanted her husband arrested. And the local prosecutor wanted the popular hero imprisoned for 30 days and then required to take part in a one-year intensive counselling program.

But it never happened. Mr. Simp-son couldn't spare the time. Too busy fulfilling his spokesman/celebrity chores. So he was allowed to plead no contest and the judge whipped up a souffle sentence: community service/probation/$700 fine. The movie actor-TV personality-Hertz Corp. spokesman thereupon signed on with NBC Sports.

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?

It's not enough to say the Simpson story validates the often-criticized habit of marketers to cut loose the moment a star spokesperson behaves scandalously. This tragedy should awaken sponsors to the fact that cutting loose may not always be best.

With something like spousal abuse, they must be prepared to step in and act responsibly by making certain the police, prosecutors, courts and social agencies know they are completely free to deal with it. How important, after all, are contracts and meetings and "spokesman" duties when the behind-the-scenes reality is marred by the suffering of innocents?

The O.J. Simpson story might have been a very different one today if in 1989 those who were his sponsors had told the judge: "Your honor, on behalf of the community, we, his associates, friends and admirers, insist that you take whatever steps you deem necessary to help this man, his wife and his children. Until then, our work with O.J. is on hold."

A forthright blending of corporate and individual responsibility must be a major lesson that comes out of O.J. Simpson's jail cell.

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