It’s difficult to say with certainty who started celebrity marketing. Julius Caesar would certainly be a prime candidate, with a skilful but highly tendentious account of the conquest of Gaul that was designed to magnify his image back in Rome.†
Whatever or whoever, it’s one of the oldest tricks in the marketing repertoire. And as much of a two-edged weapon now as the daggers which eventually struck down Caesar over 2,000 years ago.
The BBC, for one, seems slow on the uptake with the lessons of history, as the Sachsgate affair demonstrates. Now, relax, this is not going to be another one of those pious rants that spews Middle England bile on the likes of Russell Brand, declining public standards and a BBC regulatory posture so supine that it is virtually bent back on itself. No, all that goes without saying, almost.
The real brand I want to talk about here is not Russell at all but Jonathan Ross – Brand Ross in fact. However did the BBC’s own brand values become so inextricably bound up with those of Jonathan that it cannot afford to sack him without causing a great deal of self-harm in the process?
The key attribute of Brand Ross, apart from financial greed, is “edginess”. It’s a rare quality, this, so rare that marketers embrace it with all the awestruck reverence of Medieval alchemists in pursuit of the elixir of life. Which in a sense it is, for “edginess” demystified is no more than surefire appeal to that elusive key demographic, the young male. It’s magic: just sprinkle a bit over your tired old brand and, hey presto, it’s rejuvenated.
Jekyll and Hyde
Ross’ rejuvenative powers have been proved on many occasions, as his ratings and bank balance testify. But the trouble with edginess is that it’s a highly mutable element subject to rapid degradation. On form Ross is witty, relentless, fearless: no one takes him on and wins. Did he really say that and get away with it? you gasp with something close to admiration. Off form, he’s just a smutty, charmless, 47-year old bully hazing a harmless old man. As if a naughty but nice Dr Jekyll had himself swallowed the elixir of life and turned into nasty Mr Hyde.
Now that wouldn’t be too bad for the BBC if it hadn’t bought into Brand Ross so heavily. It could simply sack him, apologise fulsomely and draw a line under the sorry affair. Portly respectable middle age brand in indiscreet dalliance with youff values: how silly is that, you might say and pass on.
In fact, the situation is so much worse than that, it makes you wince at the BBC’s serial misjudgements. The closest analogy that comes to mind is from the chessboard. It’s a hopeless, zugzwang position: whichever move the BBC management makes, it’s mate for them in a few moves.
Sack him and the BBC would very publicly reveal the bankruptcy of its programme strategy. At £6m a year, Ross is the BBC’s edginess incarnate. There is no Plan B, though you may very well ask why not. Get rid of him, and the competition will drive a coach and horses through the programme gap (probably by signing him up for an even more enormous fee).
Worse, if sacked he might decide to sue. Remember, it wasn’t his show: he was Russell Brand’s guest. All right, he made a few off-hand, inappropriate comments (don’t we all sometimes?). But since he wasn’t “live”, he had every reason to suppose the BBC production team would diligently excise the offending comments before broadcasting the show.
So his lawyers would argue. And when they won, as they well might, and Ross was pocketing a cheque for £10m of taxpayers’ money on his way to a rival TV chat show, how would that look for the BBC?
Of course, he might do the decent thing by the BBC and go quietly. But for that they would have to rely on his better nature…
On the other hand, leave him in place, after a severe and very public bollocking, and the BBC management would tacitly concede that Ross is more important than the institution he serves. He really can get away with anything and, however contrite he may appear in public, we know he’ll be laughing up his sleeve all the way to the bank. At £16,000 a day he can well afford to do so; it’s us, the licence payers, who are the mugs. But cocking a snook at the politicians via their voters wouldn’t be a very smart thing for director-general Mark Thompson to do, when top-slicing of the licence fee is on the menu.
A plague on both their brands
So it’s no surprise to find him judiciously wriggling out of the situation by letting the controller of Radio 2 go (“the right decision”) and docking Ross’ pay for 3 months.
But it won’t work. Ross is damaged goods now, the butt of countless jokes about his greed and swaggering behaviour. The fact that some wag has already dubbed the £1.3m fine ‘80 BBC journalists’ says it all. Here is a festering, unfunny joke, with the last laugh on the BBC’s reputation.
How fortunate that not all youth brands are as two-edged as Brand Ross. Take that Lewis Hamilton for example. He’s clean-cut, a genuine 23, has never been heard to utter a smutty word in public, and chivalrously settles his scores on the field of battle rather than in TV and radio studios. What’s more, it’s looks as if he’s got another ten years at the top of his game, which is more than you can say for Jonathan Ross.