The issue is: what happens when you hang the sacred hat of your brand on a human being, flawed and imperfect as humans are. And encouraged to be even more flawed and imperfect by being big paid mega dollars for lending their persona to goods and services.
I once worked on a chic, hip little print campaign for Rose’s Lime Juice, a humble old-fashioned drink mixer marketed to the avant garde art and gay communities. Annie Liebovitz was the photographer. Pairings of interesting creative celebrities were the subject. As the tagline for Roses was The Uncommon Denominator, the idea of the campaign was coupling a traditional, established artist with a young, avant garde figure. One subject was Norman Parkinson, grand old man of the photographic arts who had spent decades photographing both British royalty and the royalty of fashion. His mate in this ad was Robert Mapplethorpe, careerist hero of the gay demimonde who among many other things, was famous for rendering homosexual S&M images in exquisite, almost classical fashion.
So the photographers were photographed by the photographer’s photographer. And all was hip and chic until days after the shoot, Mapplethorpe announced, tragically, that he had AIDS. Back then, this meant the end. Period. And the client was in the unspeakable position, after all the sympathy was extended and expended, of deciding what to do. Having hung your hat on a celebrity, you have to put on your hard-headed client hat and ask: do I run this ad? Yes, this is beyond commerce, yes, we will not confuse human values with mercenary concerns, yes, this is beyond ads. But…do we run this ad or not? It may seem heartless, but they were confronted with the issue of all the meanings and realities of AIDS being injected into their brand, since a celebrity endorsement is nothing but injecting your brand with the ethos of a particular individual.
In the end, courageously, they ran the ad, and it changed nobody’s life: neither ours, nor Robert’s, nor the brand’s. It even occurs to me that if it happened today, the client might ironically be accused of capitalizing on a fatal disease to sell products. Things have changed.
But as Tom Wicker of the New York Times once said during one of Donald Trump’s periodic rendezvous’ with bankruptcy: “A lot better men than Trump have learned that those who live by PR can die by PR.”
Or, when you hitch your wagon to a star, make sure your star doesn’t fall off the wagon.