Commentary by Scott Donaton


A Curious Look at Celebrity Misbehavior and Branding

By Published on .

A crime wave by celebrities and superstar athletes has snared the attention of law-enforcement officials -- and of marketing
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'
executives, who are scrambling to ink long-term endorsement deals with the perpetrators.

Bizarre behavior
The bizarre behavior by some of the biggest names in movies, music and sports was sparked by reports that sales of Allen Iverson-branded merchandise rose sharply after that NBA bad boy's recent felony arrest. It also comes on the heels of new print ads for Pony sneakers that back the disgraced former baseball star Pete Rose in his bid for entry to the Hall of Fame -- despite being banned from the sport for gambling.

"Celebrity endorsement deals have been on the wane for the last decade," said a leading celebrity-marketing executive who spoke on the condition that his name appear in boldface type. (We declined.) "That's largely because of concerns the celebrity

Photo: AP
Allen Iverson's Philadelphia Police Department booking sheet from recent arrest.
Click to see larger image.

would be involved in a tabloid scandal that would drag a brand's name through the mud."

"Now we're going to see these endorsement deals come roaring back in hopes endorsers will conduct themselves in a scandalous manner," the executive said. "We're writing 'no-morals' clauses into our contracts as we speak. If the celebrity doesn't get a negative hit in a gossip column in the first three months, the sponsor can pull out without penalty."

Hollywood would love it
Not surprisingly, Hollywood agents want a piece of the action, sensing another content-commerce convergence in the TiVo age. "Just imagine!" said an agent who got so excited he spilled his nonfat latte. "News reports saying that the suspect, whose new film opens Friday in theaters everywhere, fled the scene of the crime and eluded the cops wearing Nike's newest running shoe. Sales would skyrocket!"

"Think of it," he continued: "A sitcom star leading California police on a televised freeway chase. Wouldn't you want that to be your new sedan he or she is driving? Wouldn't you want to run a commercial immediately after the capture, noting it would have been a clean getaway if the actor had your turbo-charged sports car instead of that clunky SUV? How much would a soft-drink company pay to plaster its logo on the roof of the vehicle for those helicopter shots? The possibilities are endless!"

Agents for actress Winona Ryder denied rumors the film star was considering cutting category-exclusive deals with marketers in which she would in the future only be accused of shoplifting their branded merchandise.

Celebrity crimes
The wave of "celebrity crimes," from petty offenses to felony charges, picked up steam in the weeks after the clean-cut (read: boring) NBA champion Kobe Bryant appeared on a basketball court in Harlem in a transparent attempt to gain street credibility. Bryant's publicity stunt -- he was wearing Nike on the court -- came after Adidas dropped his shoe contract. In the same week, Reebok expressed unwavering support for Allen Iverson.

"Nice guys do finish last," said the sports-marketing executive. "In the current media environment, unpaid media appearances are more valuable than paid advertising. Besides, it's the only thing marketers can afford in the recession. Their budgets have been chopped more times than a Martha Stewart salad. And, let's face it: Being good doesn't get you on the cover of The Star."

If the trend holds, sales of merchandise bearing Martha Stewart's name appear poised for an uptick as questions continue to swirl about her sale of ImClone Systems shares just prior to its stock-price collapse. Asked if she agrees that any publicity is good publicity, the domestic diva declined to comment. Said Martha: "I just want to focus on my salad."

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