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Celebrity Scandals! What's a Brand to Do?

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Katy Perry pitches for CoverGirl. (Instagram)

Whoever said there's no such thing as bad publicity never met Twitter. Or Instagram. Or Facebook.

It takes less than 140 characters to share a thought with the world — whether or not it's been carefully contemplated (and usually it hasn't been). An eyebrow-raising quote from a years-old interview can easily resurface online and blow up anew. To put it simply: news travels fast.

For brands that increasingly rely on Hollywood stars to serve as spokespeople, the situation is a tricky one. Consider the recent controversies of "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson, who made offensive comments about race and homosexuality in an interview with GQ, or of LGBT advocate Macklemore, whose past attitudes on equality issues were questioned after the website Jezebel dug up (possibly sarcastic) tweets he wrote in 2009, before he hit the mainstream. Last year, Paula Deen demonstrated just how quickly a celebrity can be taken down after statements she gave during a deposition for a civil lawsuit brought by a former employee were published in the media, revealing that, among other things, the Southern cook had used the N-word and made racist jokes. In less than two weeks, Food Network, Sears, Kmart, Target, and Home Depot cut ties with the butter-loving chef.

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Paula Deen was dropped quickly. (Splash News)


Risky Business

Rob Stone, the owner of NYC-based Excel Branding, a firm that's worked with clients like Coca-Cola, tells Yahoo that today's everything-is-a-scandal mentality is driving brands to turn to more tried and true celebrities (think Brad Pitt, Oprah, or Ellen DeGeneres) when it comes to endorsement deals. "The tides have drastically changed over the past year," he says. "Brands and retailers are shying away from these high profile, edgy, in-your-face celebs as they can't chance it — it's too risky."

At the same time, though, the people behind products haven't been scared off completely. They know that celebrities, especially those with powerful social media networks, work to their advantage, and they're willing to shell out big bucks for them. Katy Perry, who pitches CoverGirl makeup, can reach more than 50.6 million loyal followers with a single tweet and more than 60 million with a Facebook post in a more meaningful way than a press release could ever do.
 
Stacy Jones, the CEO of marketing company Hollywood Branded Inc., explains that celebrity endorsements are actually on the rise because a known spokesperson can help them get attention fast; today's endorsement deals just look different from the ones of yesterday that locked in A-listers for years at a time.

"The stakes have changed where even D-list celebrities command a very large influence upon their fan base through their social media profiles," Jones notes. "Our agency is seeing an upturn in the sheer numbers of celebrity campaigns being brokered — ones that have shorter life spans and more of a variety of celebrity endorsers — which allows a brand to more nimbly step away [if they need to]."

Damage Control

At Iconix Brand Group, home to trendy fashion lines like Candie's, Material Girl, and Bongo, a moderate scandal isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some ads for Candie's — a clothing, shoe, and perfume line — have been so racy themselves that they were banned. (Bella Thorne, the singer and actress who has 2.5 million followers on Instagram and twice as many on Twitter, is the current Candie's girl.)

Dari Marder, the chief marketing officer at Iconix, says the company has always been careful about which celebrities it partners with, but now that entails a little more research.

"We definitely have to be more 24/7 on top of the talent and what they're doing and just be aware of all the activity," Marder shares. "Certainly our social media team here follows all the social platforms of all of our talent, so we kind of see what they're up to. [But] typically, we have very strong partnerships with our talent. We have a really good sense of who they are as people. We meet all of them before we sign long-term deals. We know management, and we have a good idea of what we’re getting into."

 

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Bella Thorne and Rita Ora sell. (Candie's/Material Girl)

[Related: Bella Thorne Loves a Good Love Letter]


But every company has to draw the line somewhere. "There were definitely conversations that we had about Miley, that she might be right for one of our brands, and then things developed last year when we thought maybe it's gone too far to be appropriate for this particular brand," Marder says, referencing the "Wrecking Ball" singer's racy MTV VMAs performance. "We're not making any judgment on her behavior, but for our brand, we thought maybe [it's] not the right fit after all."

Jones notes that the key to minimizing potential problems with a celeb spokesperson was exemplified in the "Duck Dynasty" situation.

"The average viewers of the show share major core values with the celebrities on that show, where religion and family are the foundation of everyday life," Jones notes. "Brand partners and retailers who have associated themselves with the show [chose] not to shy away after the uproar."

In fact, Cracker Barrel experienced backlash when it went against the crowd and removed "Duck Dynasty" merchandise from store shelves. Customers were outraged not at what Robertson had said, but that Cracker Barrel was abandoning Robertson because of it. As a result, the chain quickly put its "Duck Dynasty" products back out and issued an apology. "When we made the decision to remove and evaluate certain Duck Dynasty items, we offended many of our loyal customers," the company wrote on its Facebook page. "Our intent was to avoid offending, but that's just what we've done. You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened."

The difference in the "Duck Dynasty" and Deen situations was that "the average consumers of the 'Duck Dynasty' merchandise brands appear not to be outraged by the statements," Jones adds.

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Phil Robertson caused a ruckus. (A&E)

 

[Related: 10 Reasons Why Katy Perry Is Twitter's First 50 Millionaire]


Keeping It Real

Still, no one wants to team up with a celebrity who never makes headlines, which is why the bold-faced name a brand chooses definitely has to be interesting and have a true connection with their fans.

Like CoverGirl's Katy Perry, who is known for wearing such fashions as whip cream-spewing bras and light-up dresses and became the newest face of the makeup company in October. A press release touted her "honesty, accessibility, and sense of humor."

In a statement to Yahoo, the company said that, "All of our CoverGirls are uniquely beautiful inside and out. They are strong women who boldly express who they are, and rock it for the world to see."

That's another way of saying that the "Roar" singer is real and authentic; it implies that some missteps are OK.

Marder, of Iconix, credits social media with changing the audience's perspective on the rich and famous.

"There used to be so many layers between the celebrities and the public that [now] you're just seeing a much more raw, open, real side of the celebrity," Marder says. "I think that's what creates the connection and the engagement and, ultimately, I do think that's a good thing."

True, unless a brand's spokesperson pulls a Shia LaBeouf

 

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