The onset of the mass media age has changed the way major companies promote their brands and services to consumers. Over the course of the 20th Century, brands have increasingly teamed up with celebrities to front their promotional efforts, drawing the attention of their worldwide fan-bases.
The rise of social media has changed the nature of celebrity endorsement. Social media savvy stars such as Kendall Jenner are increasingly to promoting products and services to their followers on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Jenner, who has around 61m followers on Instagram, racks up as much as US$30,000 for every promotional post she places on Instagram. This illustrates that in the digital age, brands believe in the power of star endorsement more than ever before.
Lochte’s fall from grace
When brand’s sign these deals with celebrities, they establish a relationship of mutual trust. However the famous faces they work with can actually damage a firm’s brand image. Take 12-time Olympic Gold Medallist Ryan Lochte, the second most decorated US Olympian in history. Over the course of his career, Lochte signed major sponsorship deal with the likes of Speedo and mattress firm Airwaves.
The US swimmer recently damaged his reputation potentially past the point of repair at the Rio 2016 Olympics. After flying home from Rio, Lochte told his mother that he had been robbed at gunpoint in the city. Major news sources reported on the story, before it was revealed that Lochte lied to cover up his own immature behaviour. Following this news, Lochte’s major sponsors like Speedo and Airwaves dropped the swimmer, in order to shield their brand images from the fallout.
Depp and Dior
Many Australia consumers are now encouraging Dior to take similar action with Johnny Depp. The actor was named Dior’s brand ambassador for its ‘Sauvage’ fragrance in 2015. Recently, Depp featured in a poster campaign for the fragrance in Sydney and Melbourne. The posters showed Depp standing in a desert-like scene, accompanied by the strapline “Sauvage, wild at heart.”
This was a case of terrible timing on Dior’s part. The brand unveiled its Sauvage campaign, The Drum writes1, just over a week after Depp’s divorce with Amber Heard was settled. During proceedings Heard claimed that over the course of their 18 month marriage, she was physically assaulted by Depp. She has pledged to donate her US$7m divorce settlements to several charities, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which strives to end violence against women.
After these allegations first emerged Women’s Aid, a UK-based domestic violence charity, advised Dior to sever ties with Depp. Expanding, a Women’s Aid spokesperson commented to the Guardian2: “If the allegations of domestic abuse are proven to be true, we would hope that a responsible fashion house would not continue to work with a perpetrator – no matter how high-profile they may be.”
It is important to note that Depp has repeatedly denied these allegations. Commenting in a joint state after the divorce, Depp and Heard explained: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has lied nor made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm. Amber wishes the best for Johnny in the future. Amber will be donating financial proceeds from the divorce to a charity.”
Despite this statement, Australian consumers have called the Sauvage campaign “tasteless” on Twitter, attracting the attention of international press. For instance, one user wrote: “How tasteless is this: Johnny Depp in a cologne ad in the new ESPN magazine issue. Great timing, Christian Dior.” This has generated significant negative online content, impacting Christian Dior’s brand image.
Furthermore, it has emerged that “a couple of complaints,” have been logged with the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), the national industry body, over the Sauvage campaign. Fiona Jolly, who serves as the Chief of the ASB, has noted that multiple complaints have been made. She would not reveal the exact nature of these complaints, but did say that they “centre around the use of the actor in the advertisements,” indicating that this backlash is very much focused on Depp.
The Lochte and Depp cases appear very different at first glance. Eventually Lochte admitted guilt, so the brands he worked with had a clear cut reason to sever ties with the swimmer. In contrast Depp has maintained his innocence and by issuing a joint statement, it appears that Heard has backed up his story, so Dior was presented with a real conundrum. Should they drop Depp when there was no concrete proof that he had engaged in the kind of conduct which can damage a brand’s reputation?
But in reality, the two cases are very similar, providing key insight for companies which team up with celebrities to promote their brands. Mud can stick, especially on social media, where consumers can express their opinions with the click of a few buttons. The rise of smartphones has made it even easier for consumers to message brands on social media, posting on the go. Within this environment, firms would be advised to practise extreme caution when signing promotional deals with celebrities, as if the star acquires a negative image online, the company can soon be tarred with the same brush.