Celebrity Spokespeople: Avoiding Certain “Situations”

Genuinely upset, or clever PR stunt? Photomontage by TIME; Getty Images

As tweeted yesterday, an attention-grabbing headline indeed when Abercrombie & Fitch offered to pay cast members of MTV’s “The Jersey Shore” to not wear its clothes.  In the statement Abercrombie released, the clothing retailer said that by wearing its product, the group was causing “significant damage” to the brand’s image.

This seemingly hypocritical statement (one of Abercrombie’s best-selling T-shirts is the “Fitch-utation”) is most likely a PR/ publicity stunt geared at the brands back-to-school sales.  After all, none of the cast members have ever been paid spokespeople for the brand.

However, many brands face a very real risk of being associated with a personality or celebrity – or even having their own spokespeople reflect poorly on their image. Some examples of these company/personality relationships gone sour include Tiger Woods with Tag Heuer, Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture.  To name just two others in sports: Michael Phelps (Kellogg’s) and Barry Bonds (KFC and MasterCard).  Then there was the infamous Kate Moss photos that launched a thousand ships and dropped just as many of her sponsors (H&M, Burberry). Computer giant Dell dropped its “Dell Dude” when he was arrested in NYC for attempting to buy marijuana. And in healthcare, pharmaceutical companies could risk losing credibility if a particular spokesperson lost his or her public image (perhaps that is why they go with generic people and dogs so often).

While some believe all publicity is good publicity, I can’t imagine there is any company – in any industry – excited to see Mel Gibson eating, drinking, wearing or using its product.


Phelps on a Kellogg's Corn Flakes box, before his endorsement deal went south. According to Kellogg's, Phelps' behavior was "not consistent with the image of [Kellogg's

The reputational risks of having a personality as the face of your brand can be significant. In less extreme cases – having a motivational speaker at a company event – the affects can still be meaningful.  Choosing such personalities requires thorough process and research, and may require working with an agency to find the best fit for your brand.


Borrowing from Peter Morrissey’s recent blog post: The company you keep is key to reputation. Here are a few guidelines to think about before associating your company with someone:

  • He or she will be representing the whole company, for the company’s benefit.  They will be communicating key messages about your brand and product. Take into account what you stand for and align yourself with someone accordingly.  It’s like my parents always said: “You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing us.”  Beware of high-risk factors (example, a celebrity who has had financial or legal issues).
  • Evaluate and research your audience, internally and externally.  Who will resonate most with your main clients and customers?  Who will motivate and/or inspire your employees?  More importantly, who stands for the same things you do and possesses similar integrity?  Research shows that people often point to loyalty as a key attribute for friends – suggesting fidelity, consistency and trust.
  • Make sure you have a moral and ethical clause in any contractual agreement, and that the mutual understanding level is high.  Peter Morrissey has said: “Communications occurs when both parties understand. Better understanding leads to the best communications.” Find someone equally open and candid, and people will want to be around your brand.

Even if there are moral clauses in place, to err is human and even those with the best reputations falter.  No one person is perfect – he or she is, after all, a personality – subject to mood swings, unprofessional moments and unsavory character flaws.  But, like corporations, the importance is placed on a person being credible and accountable for their errors. For long-term reputational strategy, choose strategic partners wisely and don’t lose sight of who you are in the process.

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