'Duck Dynasty' Merchandise Eludes Phil Robertson Fallout

Marketers Either Mum or Publicly Stick with Show After Comments About Gays, Blacks

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The "Duck Dynasty" licensing empire has sustained little damage so far from the controversy over comments from patriarch Phil Robertson about gay people and blacks, raising the prospect that the brand will fly unscathed over the flak in stark contrast to Paula Deen six months ago.

T-shirts with Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson remained on shelves at Walmart near Cincinnati Dec. 23.
T-shirts with Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson remained on shelves at Walmart near Cincinnati Dec. 23. Credit: Jack Neff

Five days after release of a GQ interview in which the star of the A&E Networks hit compared homosexuality to bestiality and discounted the troubles blacks faced during the Jim Crow era in the South, the one marketer to have publicly pulled "Duck Dynasty" merchandise off its shelves – Cracker Barrel – quickly backtracked yesterday.

"You told us we made a mistake," Cracker Barrel said in a media statement also posted on its Facebook page. "You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened."

In addition to Cracker Barrel, brands such as Under Armour have gotten tens of thousands of Facebook comments each in support of Mr. Robertson.

A&E, while it has suspended Mr. Robertson indefinitely from filming new episodes, went ahead with a planned Christmas week "Duck Dynasty" marathon starting Sunday. New episodes including Mr. Robertson are set to air starting Jan. 15, according to Entertainment Weekly, which cited an unnamed network source as hoping the whole controversy will have blown over by then.

It's all in stark contrast to the case of Paula Deen, who could never pull the fat out of the fire after her admission in a deposition earlier this year that she'd used racial slurs in the past. Within days of media reports about her testimony, the Food Network terminated her contract. Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Walmart all took public steps to sever their business ties with her.

While Ms. Deen was publicly apologetic, neither Mr. Robertson nor the rest of his family have offered any apologies. Ms. Deen got relatively little support, but political figures such as Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have backed Mr. Robertson. A Facebook page calling for a boycott of A&E for suspending Mr. Robertson has won more than a million likes.

Laying low
Most marketers are simply laying low on the subject. Walmart, where "Duck Dynasty" graphic T shirts have been among top sellers all year, and which stands to sell half of an estimated $400 million in overall sales of "Duck Dynasty"-licensed merchandise this year, according to Forbes, declined to comment. Representatives of Target, Dollar General, Kohl's, Kroger Co., Amazon and Dick's Sporting Goods, all of which carry wide assortments of "Duck Dynasty" merchandise, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Others sought to distance themselves from Mr. Robertson's comments but not the merchandise.

"Phil Robertson's point of views in no way reflect those of Teleflora," said a spokeswoman for the online florist, which has a holiday "Duck Dynasty" promotion. "Our holiday partnership is with Willie, Jase, Jep, and their wives only and runs only through Christmas. Phil Robertson has never been a part of our program."

Under Armour, which sells "Duck Dynasty"-licensed apparel, said in a statement that "comments in the GQ article are not reflective of Under Armour's beliefs" but that it isn't severing business ties with the brand.

Difference with Dean
"Duck Dynasty" may fare better than Paula Deen in part because in the latter case "all of the questionable statements were focused on one person," said Robert Passikoff, founder and president of the consultancy Brand Keys. "Duck Dynasty" may far better because "other people are involved in the show."

Michael Stone, CEO of brand licensing firm Beanstalk, believes retailers simply hope to steer clear of controversy as they clear "Duck Dynasty" merchandise from shelves over the holidays, but may be reluctant to re-order next year, especially for something that looks like a fad anyway.

"There are certain things celebrities do that are forgivable by consumers," Mr. Stone said, including going to jail for a victimless crime in the case of Martha Stewart. "Other things cross the line," he said, and he believes Ms. Deen and Mr. Robertson both entered into the "unforgivable."

"Duck Dynasty" the show may well last for years, Mr. Stone said. But he believes the merchandise would have faded away anyway, much like with Comedy Central's "South Park" merchandise years ago.

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