Why sponsors take the rough with the smooth

Celebrities can get away with adultery, drug abuse, and worse because if they maintain public support brands will still back them

How many women has Tiger Woods been playing away with? Kalika Moquin and Jaimee Grubbs put their hands up straight away; Rachel Uchitel decided, on balance, she slept with him too; then Las Vegas model Jaime Jungers popped up. Finally Holly Sampson took the total to seven, but there may be others who have yet to come out of the woodwork.

All this would be of little matter if Woods wasn’t the world’s greatest ever golfer, who also happens to be the world’s greatest sports sponsorship earner, pocketing over $100m a year.

Sponsors from Gillette to Nike, EA Sports, Gatorade and NetJets have been unanimous and swift in their verdict – no charge to answer; they will continue to support their man. They are probably right to do so. In the court of public opinion, Woods may be judged a hypocrite and an adulterer, but there will be plenty who think he has already got his just desserts from an understandably irate wife; and yet others who will admire the spunk of a man capable of conducting several clandestine affairs simultaneously, amid all that driving and putting.

For sponsors, the benefit of moral doubt over Woods’ character is less important than the fact he is such a winner – and likely to continue to be one for a long time to come. Luckily for Woods, the word “irreplaceable” often comes up in association with his name.

All the same, the Woods affair does raise an interesting question. How heinous an act does a celebrity have to commit before sponsors finally lose patience and write them off? My impression is that sponsors are extraordinarily tolerant of bad behaviour (at least, in public). On the available evidence, a celebrity would either have to do something overtly criminal, or be peculiarly stupid before he or she loses the contract.

Part of the problem are the legal niceties of the contract between endorser and brand. Inserting morality clauses may act as a deterrent to bad behaviour, but proving it has actually damaged the brand’s image is not so easy. The point was well made by Clintons media and entertainment lawyer Philip Stinson in the Financial Times recently: “The grey area is in defining behaviour which isn’t imprisonable but is arguably morally suspect and whether it can reasonably be said that the behaviour has had any material impact on the good name and image of the sponsor.”

Arguably, reality TV celebrity Kerry Katona was peculiarly stupid to lose her £750,000 a year sponsorship with Iceland, the supermarket chain, earlier this year. As my colleague Ruth Mortimer has pointed out (Blog, Aug 18), Iceland up to the point of rupture had been extraordinarily supportive; perhaps too supportive. It had kept faith with the troubled star – who was after all supposed to be an iconic representation of capable motherhood – throughout a series of torrid drug-taking exposés, not to mention her high-profile bankruptcy proceedings (testimony to profligacy, at the nadir of the recession).

The benefit of moral doubt over Woods’ character is less important than the fact he is such a winner – and likely to continue to be one for a long time to come. Luckily for Woods, the word ‘irreplaceable’ often comes up in association with his name

What finally did for her and her reputation was four days of boozing and cocaine abuse (through a £20 note) lovingly documented on video by the News of the World.

In truth, with better counselling, or better selfcontrol, Katona could probably have shrugged off the earlier allegations and gone on to greater success. Look at super-model Kate Moss. Scandal and Kate have been good bedfellows over the years. But by September 2005 her celebrity endorsement days seemed over after the Daily Mirror published pictures of her snorting cocaine at a Babyshambles recording session. H&M, Burberry and Chanel all quickly pulled the rug from under her feet. Then Moss did what Woods was to do a few years later: she made an elegant career-saving apology that just stopped short of full disclosure. “I take full responsibility for my actions,” she said. “I also accept that there are various personal issues that I need to address and have started taking the difficult steps to resolve them. I want to apologise to all of the people I have let down because of my behaviour, which has reflected badly on my family, friends, co-workers, business associates and others.”

As Oscar Wilde once remarked: “It’s the feet of clay that make the idol so precious.” The apology did the trick without admitting criminal liability. Dior stayed loyal. Some, like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Mobile, even warmed to her bad girl image and awarded her a brand ambassador role. And a career reboot was just round the corner, with a £3m contract from retail tycoon Sir Philip Green to (purportedly) design her own set of clothes for Topshop.

Skating around cocaine abuse may be all right if you’re a glamour model, but what if a brand ambassador proves to be a cheat and a liar? Well, that’s all right too, as long as you’re Lewis Hamilton with a Formula One world championship in the bag and the promise of more to come. Lewis connived with other members of the McLaren F1 team to pervert the outcome of the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year. He lied to the stewards, but later issued a handsome admission of his own guilt, which let him and his career off the hook.

Although a lot further down the earnings league than Woods, Hamilton has some of the same “irreplaceable” quality as the golfing legend. He is black, he has broken into a whitedominated sport, and he’s made it to the top at a very young age, which means he has plenty more winning potential.

And the moral of all this? Well, that’s the point, there isn’t one. It’s not too nihilistic to assert that celebs are filling a moral vacuum. If they can’t actually dictate social or moral values, they certainly mould them through their behaviour.

And, as long as that behaviour passes the popularity test, that’s all right for sponsors too.

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