The Dangers of the Homegrown Spokesperson

By and

While the benefits of hiring a celebrity spokesperson can be substantial to a company’s image and bottom line, the pitfalls of a rogue brand ambassador can be even more damaging and long-lasting. This is true regardless of whether the person was a public figure prior to fronting the product or service, or a homegrown spokesperson whose fame came as the result of starring in an ad campaign.

Such is the case of Jared Fogle, the longtime successful spokesperson for Subway, who was recently shown the door by the sandwich chain after criminal allegations concerning child pornography and sexual misconduct with minors came to light. Fogle pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison.

The troubles of big-time celebrity pitchmen have been well-documented in the media over the past couple of years. Bill Cosby (the longtime spokesperson for Jell-O and other products) was accused of rape; Tiger Woods (Gatorade, AT&T) admitted to cheating on his wife with several women; Lance Armstrong (Nike, Anheuser Busch) was exposed in a doping scandal; and celebrity chef Paula Deen (Walmart, Smithfield Foods) was recorded making racial slurs. All were eventually dropped by their endorsed companies, which took steps to sever their relationships with the beleaguered stars.

Fogle’s situation and its implications for Subway are serious. Most celebrity mishaps are minor and require less damage control; most people can understand or forgive infractions such as driving under the influence, shoplifting, or hostile run-ins with the paparazzi. Rehabilitation in the public mindset is not only possible, many people actually root for a fallen star to turn things around and regain his or her standing.

In Fogle’s case, however, consumers won’t be so forgiving, and his career as the face of any product is basically dead. Unlike most celebrity spokespeople, Fogle has nothing positive to fall back on besides his decades-long association with Subway; if he can rehabilitate his image, it will be based on future actions and accomplishments, not on any equity he has built up so far.

It makes no difference to consumers whether a company’s spokesperson came to fame via success on the screen, in a sports arena, or as a result of being a customer with a compelling story to tell. The damage to a brand is equally significant, and its recovery from a scandal like this depends on a quick, decisive response to separate itself from its former spokesperson.

The circumstances surrounding the scandal and whether the company itself was complicit in the situation are crucial to salvaging the public’s perception of the brand. Obviously, the public’s judgment would be harsher if a company was knowingly involved or tolerated a spokesperson’s troubling behavior.

While Subway’s awareness of Fogle’s predilections is still under investigation, the brand was strongly associated with the pitchman and needed to react swiftly and convincingly to disassociate itself from him. The company quickly instituted a number of damage control measures, including the issuance of talking points for employees and franchisees to use in responding to customers and the press.

Due to the widespread influence of social media, rapid, comprehensive action is more critical now than it ever has been. In the mid-1990s, Hertz was able to re-establish a solid brand image and recapture lost revenues quickly after O.J. Simpson (a spokesperson for the car rental company since 1975) was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.

The relatively measured pace of Hertz’s reaction would never fly today; the problem would have gone viral in 24 hours and Hertz would have had no choice but to react instantaneously to stem the tide of uncontrollable, negative information and opinions that flood social media sites today.

The potential pitfalls of hiring a human being as company spokesperson have led many companies over the years to eliminate that volatility from the equation and create animated pitchmen. After all, Mr. Clean would never do anything to dirty his image, and Geico’s chatty gecko is at low risk for becoming PETA’s cause célèbre due to cruel and unusual working conditions.

Vetting Against Volatility

With the inherent drawbacks associated with hiring a celebrity spokesperson, why even bother? The answer is simple: It has been proven that the benefits of picking the right celebrity brand ambassador outweigh the potential risks. Only another human being can connect with consumers on multiple levels, especially to convey the sense of gravitas many products or services require.

Marketers should look for a comprehensive program that thoroughly scrutinizes any candidate’s current and past behavior, however—and to whatever degree possible, uncovers potential future problems.

The vetting protocol for each prospective endorsement deal should consist of the following:

A full background check. This needs to go deeper than a basic online search. It’s worth spending the money on a full LexisNexis search, which may reveal information about, and/or comments made by, a celebrity outside the media mainstream. When hiring a celebrity for a category in which trust is paramount such as financial services, insist on a full criminal and credit check history, which requires the talent’s permission.

A thorough analysis of social media. While consumers are less likely to hold an off-the-cuff comment made on Twitter or Facebook against a public figure, they can be damaging or foreshadow behavior that could surface in the future. Often, there’s a need to go beyond the public record for in-depth questioning of colleagues and industry executives, in search of comments and/or incidents known only to insiders.

Once compiled, this forms the foundation for an “opposition research memo” detailing specific areas of concern including rumors and allegations. Then, the marketer and its counsel can conduct a confidential, in-person interview with the celebrity and his or her manager to ask any tough questions.

Morality clauses. Traditionally, these clauses are limited to severe misconduct, such as a criminal conviction or illicit drug use. However, in today’s explosive social media environment, they often can’t protect a brand sufficiently, and a more subjective version should be included, wherein termination is an option if the talent’s poor behavior attracts public disrepute.

Celebrity endorsement insurance. Some carriers offer policies guarding against celebrity meltdowns, and conduct in-house investigations and a risk evaluation before insuring a spokesperson.

Meticulous vetting may enable marketers to avoid problems before they occur. In one case, a deal between a major advertiser and a potential spokesperson was in its final stages when we discovered that the celebrity had made multiple anti-gay comments to people in the industry. While the comments had not gone public and there was no reason to believe that they would, we felt the potential for trouble was too great to continue, and quickly went on to another candidate.

Some industry decision-makers regularly advise brands to create their own spokespersons—as Subway did with Jared Fogle—in order to minimize celebrity backlash issues and drive down the cost of the deal. However, this type of arrangement may be even harder for an advertiser to fix if things go south. With no basis for popularity beyond his affinity for Subway sandwiches, a personality like Fogle is so closely associated with the brand that consumers may have a more difficult time separating its image of the company and that of its fallen frontman.

The damage Fogle has done to Subway is likely worse than any other homegrown celebrity scandal in the history of advertising. One needs to go back to the early 1970s for a similarly-disastrous parallel, when it was revealed that Ivory Snow Girl Marilyn Chambers was also a prominent adult film star, resulting in countless jokes on late-night TV referencing the soap’s longtime slogan, “9944/100% Pure.”

Proctor & Gamble, which has manufactured Ivory Snow for almost 150 years, got over the scandal, but it took a while. It remains to be seen if the countermeasures taken by Subway will be effective in defusing the Fogle incident, and more importantly, whether the company will be able to retain its popularity in the marketplace.