Paula Deen hid her diabetes diagnosis for three years and then came out with her illness while signing on as spokesperson for a diabetes drug, all the while continuing to promote sugary, high-calorie recipes like Twinkie Pie, Deep Fried Cheesecake Fried Stuffing on a Stick.
Her brand, which is all about food, survived.
Yet somehow she couldn't survive using the "N" word. The key with the "N" word is to own the mistake, explain it and apologize right away. When she did the no-show with Matt Lauer, that raised questions. Though she had already admitted using the word, folks felt she had something to hide.
Many who followed the diabetes story in 2012 were upset and disappointed by what they heard, but people saw Deen as this harmless, sweet-talking Southern Belle, if finally a little slick. They gave her a pass.
That's why I was initially surprised when the Food Network dropped her so quickly. I wonder if they did what I did, step away from the media frenzy and do a little research on her. When I started reading her lawsuit deposition and watched and read some of Deen's older interviews, I was convinced, that if I were a corporation, I would drop her too.
In the early pages of the her deposition in the lawsuit brought by her former restaurant manager, charging racial and sexual harassment, Deen sticks her head in the sand when questioned about concerns about her brother's ability to operate the business after he admitted to using the "N" word in the workplace (along with reviewing pornography and stealing thousands of dollars from the business). She describes an ideal wedding as a Southern-plantation style affair with black waiters serving.
In an interview with The New York Times, Deen introduces her black friend Hollis Johnson to an audience as "Blacker than that board," meaning the stage backdrop, and then jokes: "Come out here, Hollis! We can't see you standing against that dark board!"
I can accept her apology for using the "N" word, but I don't believe her. Her interviews suggest that she is very ingrained in old Southern traditions. Racist? Don't know. Clueless? For sure. The corporations' decision to drop her tells me that they don't believe her either. It's about credibility.
But then how did Deen's brand manage to so easily survive the duplicity and greed she displayed when she became a spokesperson last year for the diabetes drugmaker Novo Nordisk ?
I think Americans have dug their heels into eating the bad stuff. We know we should do better and many are eating better, but we are not willing to give up fat. As a result, Deen's brand is seen as no different from the quick-service restaurants that promote tasty fast-food items that exceed 1200 calories for one item. Americans also feel it's a personal choice to indulge in sugary, high-calorie foods or not.
Paula Deen's gift is making the bad stuff that already tastes good, taste even better. She's an innovator, the "spin" chef of high-caloric Southern-style cuisine. She is seen as a celebrator of Southern culture and a smart businesswoman who has used her gifts to satisfy a need, while capitalizing on an opportunity. It's the American way.
So is forgiving missteps. But race is perhaps the toughest subject in American life. On this crisis, Deen needed to be more forthright, more quickly, to keep her empire intact.
Hear from Fortune 500 brands that have been forced to pivot as consumer preferences evolve, as well as entrepreneurs building brands from scratch to meet new consumer needs. This event peels apart the layers of brand building with a carefully crafted roster of top marketing, technology, and creative leaders.Learn more