Dorothy Crenshaw December 11, 2009 | 04:25:18

Will Tiger Woods Sink Celebrity Endorsement?

The seemingly endless Tiger Woods scandal, and the well-worn implications for PR and crisis management, have me thinking instead about another aspect of our business – the celebrity endorsement. In this case, the negative fallout is so dramatic – and so unanticipated – that I have to wonder. Could brands become wary of getting into bed with celebrities?

Timing is everything, of course. GM was chagrined to announce the end of its long-running deal with Woods after its business drove into the rough a year ago. How do you think they feel now? And, Cover Girl couldn’t have been too happy about its campaign featuring Rihanna earlier this year, even though Rihanna wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing. Should marketers go back to invented personalities, like Betty Crocker or the Maytag repairman?

Not really. I researched a few of the major celebrity scandals of recent years. In virtually every case, the brands involved were only temporarily in the news, and they came away unscathed. In fact, if you run down a short list of major personalities caught up in negative publicity, nearly all have made a comeback….or are on the way there.

Take Kobe Bryant, for example. Many have compared Tiger’s troubles to his arrest and trial for sexual assault in 2003, and the subsequent loss of major sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. But, after Bryant was cleared, he came back. So did advertisers.

A tougher comparison might be Michael Vick, who served jail time after pleading guilty to crimes involving dogfighting. Though the marketing jury’s still out on Vick’s brand reputation, his image rehab is underway. Nike, Vick’s major brand sponsor, took a hit after his conviction. It was reportedly stuck with $1.5 million worth of shoe inventory that couldn’t be sold. But, it’s hard to argue any brand damage, given that Vick is once again a Nike endorser.

For me, the Woods fiasco is a little like Martha Stewart‘s fall from grace, only because it was so unexpected. Her 2005 arrest for insider trading was most definitely not a good thing for retail partner KMart. Some would say the scandal helped push KMart into bankruptcy, although it’s arguable. Stewart was forced to resign her MSLO Board seat and position as Chief Creative Officer, and the company stock price is still in the basement, yet brand Martha is very much among the living.

Then there’s Kate Moss, who blew lucrative deals with H&M, Chanel, and Burberry after she was photographed snorting cocaine. The sponsors staved off collateral damage by dropping her, and today, Moss has a chic new collection of brands on her roster, including Dior, Calvin Klein, and Louis Vuitton.

Even Chris Brown has a good shot at redemption. In fact, there’s only one major former celebrity endorser on my list that I’d say has no chance of image rehab, and that’s O.J. Simpson. Murder charges, not to mention jail time, tend to have a chilling effect on marketability.

As for the rest, it looks like the long and lucrative marriage between marketers and celebrities is still intact. I wish I could say the same for the Woods’ union. Time will tell.

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