Beware of Sponsorships with Celebrities if you work in the Public or Non-profit Sector

The most recent fiasco with Tiger Woods reminds me of some of my experiences with celebrity endorsers when I ran the marketing and corporate communications operation at Health Canada.

First a bit about Tiger. As Ken Gray points out in his recent piece in the Ottawa Citizen.

“Tiger Woods is probably the greatest athlete of our time. He even bridges ethnicity i.e. a black man with Asian roots who dominates the white middle-aged realm of the fairway. He is the Martin Luther King of the country club, that exclusive enclave of the white and wealthy.

Now corporations must be wringing their hands about picking celebrities to endorse products. The Tiger was about as squeaky clean as anyone, though the occasional f-word was picked up on TV mikes when he sliced a drive. That’s about it.

Now every celebrity endorsement will undergo the sniff test. Any little stink in a background will rule out the multi-million-dollar contracts. And who among us, even the fundamentalist TV preachers, doesn’t have a bit of a skeleton rattling around in the closet?” (Ottawa Citizen)

As mentioned, I have had my own experiences with celebrities and TV talent myself. One example was running an anti-drug campaign (marijuana) and finding out that the young lady we featured in the  ad was reportedly a “pot user”. Fortunately we were able to get the ad off the airwaves before any serious damage to the reputation to the national health department. After that experience we made sure to draw up a legal waiver which we used to negotiate with talent we used for our social marketing campaigns on the broadcast and print media.   This is clearly not a “fool proof” solution but at least it gave us some assurance that the talent we used for our advertising did not abuse alcohol, use drugs or smoke etc.

On the celebrity front we had an incident that kept me up for many nights. It was a campaign we ran with Wayne Gretzky, when he was in his prime in the late eighties and early nineties, for an impaired driving campaign on radio and the poster media. We also had produced brochures and other educational material featuring the famous 99.  At the time Gretzky was to Canada what Tiger Woods is to the USA  (before the Thanksgiving Massacre). He was loved by all Canadians both English and French and other cultures (believe it or not we actually used Gretzky in our French ads using his high school French and coaching from one of my staff). The campaign was going quite well until a few weeks into the campaign I am standing at the local convenience store in my neighborhood and I see Gretzky on the cover of a  Cigar magazine smoking a big fat “stoogie” . Yes, our poster boy for Health Canada is featured on the cover of Cigar Aficionado.


Now, to many of you, this may not be a big deal but trust me our anti- smoking group at Health Canada were not pleased. Fortunately the campaign ended a few weeks later but we certainly were much more cautious when we used celebrities in subsequent campaigns .

So if you think using celebrities have risks for commercial marketers, public sector marketers have additional risks as there is an expectation from  the public  that not only does the celebrity have to be squeaky clean but they expect the same from the organization who is using the celebrity. Health Canada is not Nike or Gatorade, but  I would argue we in the public sector have much more at stake. Is there a solution? Not sure. Who would have believed that Tiger Woods would be a risk? But here we are. Maybe Taco Bell had it right using the Chihuahua-without-a-past for its commercials, Next time a tiger endorses something, it will be Tony the Tiger.

Sean Smith in his article 10 worst celebrity endorsements reminds us that you never know when you  celebrity choice can backfire.

  • “When WalMart asked Kathie Lee Gifford, a  talk-show host in 1990s who was considered a role model for working mothers, to put her name to a range of clothing, they probably had no idea how the move would change the face of retailing in America.In 1996, the US National Labor Committee found that Gifford’s clothing line was being produced at a sweatshop in Honduras by 13- to 15-year-old girls, working up to 75 hours a week for 31 cents an hour. One of the workers, Wendy Diaz, captured the nation when she came to the United States to testify about the conditions under which she worked.”
  • “Kmart was hoping that Martha Stewart’s “Everyday” line would salvage the one-time retail giant from the depths of bankruptcy. Instead, soon after the line was released, the Feds charged Stewart with insider trading. Although Stewart and her brand (which is now being run by Macy’s) were able to recover, Kmart never did.”
  • “Pepsi made a similarly controversial step in appointing Britney Spears as the voice of a new generation of pop idols, long before her “breakdown” in 2007.”

So you just never know when a celebrity can suddenly “go off the rails” .  I guess it is Sponsor beware.

Post script

October 2012

The Implosion of Lance Armstrong’s Endorsement Empire: $30M and Counting

Longtime Sponsors Cut Ties; Losses Could Cost Cyclist as Much as $30 Million


One Reply to “Beware of Sponsorships with Celebrities if you work in the Public or Non-profit Sector”

  1. Celebrities that have good reputations as spokespeople are something that most nonprofits would give their eyeteeth for.

    There’s no rule that says you can only have one celeb, like Gretzsky. I would have just asked him to release a statement explaining that he did not endorse cigars as part of a healthy lifestyle. And then gone on to find another celebrity.

    This is a good resource to find celebrities who give to charity.

    Their wiki page also would be useful.

    At an old workplace, we got Dr. Julianne Malveaux to come speak at a dinner. She was fabulous. She poked fun at the bailouts, and she made us all think. Wished she could be more of our spokesperson, but no one asked her.

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