Sam Fiorella: Paula Deen and the Dilemma of Celebrity Endorsements

I, along with most North Americans, have been following the Paula Deen story these past few weeks with morbid curiosity. For those of you who've been living under a rock this past week, it's the story of Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods all over again. Celebrities are created or hired to represent a brand in the public space and drive media attention and revenue for their sponsors. Then, as most people do, they show a human weakness to which the public takes exception. The celebrities are unceremoniously fired in an attempt by those who have been milking their celebrity to distance themselves from the very creatures they created.

In Ms. Deen's case, during a legal deposition for a lawsuit filed by a former employee for a discriminatory and hostile work environment, she admitted to using the N-word during an alleged robbery by a black man. Of course, this was a Godsend to the legal team deposing her, who I'm sure tripped over themselves to make this information available to every news and social media outlet they could find. The explosion of public scorn was immediate and powerful, like a digital atomic bomb set off at the heart of the Internet.

The response from brands which hired or sponsored Ms. Deen was equally quick and certain. She was quickly fired from The Food Network, which she was widely credited for creating with her friendly and engaging persona. Brands such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Novo Nordisk, Smithfield Foods, and Caesars Entertainment all joined the The Food Network in running for the hills to distance themselves from the controversy. Her upcoming book, Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up, was unapologetically canceled.

Did the Food Network Have a Choice?

Negative public commentary on the network's Facebook page blew up with mostly negative comments, something that in today's socially-connected world, few brands have the fortitude or desire to fend off. An even bigger impact was felt on the corporate site, where the comments section below many of Paula Deen's recipes were taken over by those posting about the issue -- both pro-Deen and anti-Deen. The Food Network's flagship brand site became a political and social forum instead of a vehicle for the discussion of food and cooking.

When any employee or hired spokesperson creates such distress which affects the brand's public image, does the business have a choice but to distance itself? Is it the right thing to do? For the most part, the public seemed to support brands firing Ms. Deen but there remain many who are throwing their support behind her and against the brands that walked away from the woman whose celebrity they used to drive so much profit.

The Food Network was quite happy to make a dollar off of Ms. Deen when she was America's darling but quick to drop her at the first sign of controversy. In all those years, do you honestly believe that no one there understood her background or her religious, political, and social views? Should they not also receive some of the public's scorn? As they profited from Deen in the good times should they not stand by her during the bad times too? We expect this of our friends and family; why do we make exceptions for businesses?

Who Creates These Celebrities?

Whether they're hiring celebrities to host television shows or hiring them as spokespeople, businesses spend an exorbitant amount of money to create and promote the image of the icons that we're encouraged to admire. They create intricate cross-media promotions using branding, advertising, and public relations firms to create this "perfect image," an image we should worship and aspire to be. If they don't create the icon status, they certainly endorse, encourage, and even promote it. Businesses are making a public declaration that these personas are representatives of their brands.

When their chosen idols fail to live up to the public's moral expectations -- the very standard that the brand helped to establish -- businesses are quick to wash their hands of any wrongdoing and distance themselves by disassociating their brand with the disgraced spokesperson. With the dash of a pen, they absolve themselves of any moral or legal wrongs.

In most cases, the public applauds the brands for taking a stand, for offering their outrage as a sign of solidarity with current popular opinion. Overnight, these businesses go from the target of boycotts and public scorn to being celebrated for their moral stance. Just like that, they walk away from their part in building the false idol, while profiting from their actions.

Should Brands Not Be Held Accountable Too?

Why are sports athletes not forced to take a drug test before brands hire them as spokespeople, and then continue regular testing during their employment? Should their backgrounds not be vetted and potential red flags identified in advance? This is a common practice for many businesses when hiring senior executives or others in key internal or public-facing roles; why is it not mandatory for businesses that create and hire celebrity spokespeople?

Should the public not also focus their resentment towards brands for their failure to do so? Should the public not write angry letters and boycott the brands that fire their fallen spokespeople because they did not do their job in the first place? They build the pedestal on which most celebrity spokespeople sit, and then create the fanfare that draws our attention and worship towards them.

Why are celebrities not given personality or morality tests to determine their stance on race, abortion, or gay marriage before being hired to represent the brand? Given how quick the public is to condemn their idols for missteps, should this not be a common practice today? The reality is that the decision to hire spokespeople is often based more on their ability to promote or sell product than to actually represent the cultural identity of the corporation behind the brand.

All too often, businesses are well aware of a spokesperson's affinity for violence, a propensity to commit adultery, or controversial views on race and religion. The business gambles that its PR team and handlers will keep celebrity spokespeople in check, at least long enough for the brand to see a return on its investment.

If the public is going to hold celebrities to such high standards, should we not also hold the businesses that endorse them to similar standards? Was it not their responsibility to properly vet those they offer up as role models? And when these fallen idols are expected to make public apologies in order to win back our favor, should their sponsors not also be asked to perform those same acts of contrition?

Where do you stand on this debate?

Are brands that create and profit from celebrity spokespeople equally responsible to the public for their mistakes? Should these brands not stand by their spokespeople, to work together to ask for the public's forgiveness and rebuild the trust and relationship lost?

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