What's a company to do when that image-maker tarnishes?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Image is everything.

Or so says tennis star Andre Agassi in a commercial he did for Canon products. Certainly, it's a slogan he believes.

Rebellious and sometimes outrageous, Mr. Agassi is as well-known for the hair on his chest (and back) as he is for his

backhand. He wears ponytails. He dates movie stars. He wears purple shirts in a sport where the traditional uniform is white. It's an anti-establishment image that gives him fan adulation and media attention.

It's an image Canon wanted when they hired him as their spokesman.

A look. An attitude. An act. That's what companies want when they hire celebrities to hawk their products. Whether it's "Murphy Brown's" Candice Bergen talking a mile a minute in the Sprint ads or Michael Jordan flying through the air and dunking basketballs in Nike commercials, most celebrities stick to their public image when doing endorsements. That is, after all, why they are hired.

But what if that image changes?

The child-abuse allegations against pop star Michael Jackson, the messy divorce between Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, the gambling rumors surrounding Michael Jordan -- all these show just how vulnerable companies are to the images of the celebrities who endorse their products.

Some companies invest millions in celebrity endorsements. PepsiCo reportedly paid Michael Jackson $50 million for a two-year contract. Revlon signed supermodel Cindy Crawford to multimillion-dollar deal. Michael Jordan won't even consider an endorsement contract under $1 million.

Companies justify this expense because they believe having a celebrity touting their products means an increase in visibility and, eventually, an increase in sales. They hope to cash in on the images that these celebrities have established -- Mr. Jackson's childlike behavior, Mr. Jordan's feats on the basketball court, Ms. Crawford's beauty, Ms. Bergen's wit and sophistication. The marriage between celebrities and endorsements has made both sides millions.

Now that marriage is rocky, and some in the industry are wondering if these companies are relying too much on these public personas.

Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jordan and Mr. Reynolds have all had their images tainted in recent months. Mr. Jackson's troubles are possibly the most damaging. Last week, media reports disclosed that a 13-year-old boy has told Los Angeles Children Services and police that Mr. Jackson sexually molested him. Mr. Jackson's representatives deny the allegations and say the accusations stem from a failed $20 million extortion attempt.

PepsiCo and Sony Inc., two of the sponsors of Mr. Jackson's current "Dangerous" tour, are both taking a wait-and-see approach.

Some analysts say Mr. Jackson's image -- and his relationship with his sponsors -- has been damaged no matter what the outcome of the allegations.

"I don't think we'll see a big public break between Pepsi and Jackson," says Marcy Margiera, a senior reporter for Advertising Age who covers the beverage and entertainment industries. "I think they'll just quietly let his contract run out. It ends in December, so they will be OK."

Mr. Jackson's troubles could affect other big-deal celebrity endorsements.

"I think we'll be seeing fewer celebrities getting those big deals," says Ms. Margiera. "I think companies will start doing image ads the way Coke has and cut back on the big celebrity-endorsement deals. They're just too risky."

Others say getting the right celebrity to pitch your product is worth the risk. And good publicity.

"I think there are a lot of companies out there who would love to have Sharon Stone as their spokesperson," says Alison Lazar, director of new business development for Celebrity Endorsement Network in Los Angeles. Celebrity Endorsement Network hires talent on behalf of advertisers. "And she's as controversial as they come."

Ms. Lazar admits many companies would think twice about hiring Ms. Stone. "But someone could come up with a clever marketing campaign and play up her controversial stature. Kind of poke fun at it."

In the early days of television, celebrities endorsed everything from dishwashing soap to washing machines. Some of the most popular ads were for cigarettes and alcohol. The celebrities simply held up a product, looked into the camera and essentially said, "Buy this, it works."

Times have changed. Celebrities rarely plug booze, cigarettes or even fur (not good for their image), but tout everything from adult diapers to Nuprin. Holding a product and looking into a camera isn't enough in today's MTV world. Celebrities not only sell a product, but an image. Buy this and you can be like me (or Mike) is the message.

"Unfortunately, hiring a celebrity to sell your product has become a standard marketing tool," says Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. "Companies care more about an image than about the quality of their product.

"This whole Michael Jackson episode shows how vulnerable these companies are to the celebrity's image. And, ultimately, it's the consumer who pays because these big endorsement deals get passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices."

How much clout does a celebrity endorsement have?

A lot. Research shows that consumers are more likely to buy a product if it is sold by a recognizable face, someone consumers know and like, and most important, someone they admire.

"The celebrity sales pitch matters. These are business people; they're not going to do something if they're not going to make money at it," says Ms. Lazar.

Ms. Lazar says companies do extensive research before hiring a celebrity to endorse their product.

"Many go through old newspaper articles, look at TV Q rates [a measure of a person's popularity] and then do cold-calls to see what people think of these celebrities," says Ms. Lazar. "If too many red flags come up, then they won't hire that celebrity."

That's because a celebrity with a bad image can hurt the product. Or, at least, that's what industry analysts believe.

But consumers are not always that easy to predict. Depending on the nature of the controversy and the reaction of the celebrity, the public can be either quick to forget or unforgiving when it comes to celebrity controversy.

When reports surfaced that he was doing some high-stakes gambling, an angry Michael Jordan said the media were making too big a deal out of it. The public agreed.

"People weren't bothered by that kind of thing because a lot of us gamble. He just does it on a bigger scale," says Ms. Margiera. "A lot of people felt the media made a big deal out of nothing."

Mr. Jordan's image has barely been tarnished, and he remains the most popular celebrity endorser in the world.

Burt Reynolds hasn't been so lucky.

That's because the actor sold himself as the perfect family man, says Ms. Lazar. He was married to Loni Anderson, a glamorous TV actress who earned respect for standing by her man during the difficult years. They adopted a little boy. Mr. Reynolds had a hit TV show.

Mr. Reynolds made the most of this All-American image as the spokesman for the Florida Citrus Commission, which in the mid-'80s dropped Anita Bryant as its spokeswoman because of her outspoken views against homosexuality.

Then, two months ago, Mr. Reynolds filed for divorce, saying he was in love with another woman (who happens to look like a younger Loni). The couple has engaged in a nasty media war ever since.

A two-timing Mr. Reynolds didn't fit the family image that the PTC Florida Citrus Commission wanted. They pulled the ads featuring the actor and announced they would not renew his $500,000 contract, which ends this fall.

"I think people were mad at what he did and the way he treated his wife. Companies are going to think long and hard about hiring him again," says Ira Mayer, publisher of Entertainment Marketing Newsletter in New York City. "Companies put a lot of money into this. They wouldn't want to take the risk of offending middle America."

Maybe Mr. Agassi is right. Image is everything. And when it's bought and sold, maybe it's the only thing.

MARRIAGES OF MARKETING

Gotta product? Get a celebrity to hawk it. Just make sure it's a product that promotes or makes fun of the celebrity's image. Or pays big bucks. Michael Jordan, the hottest celebrity pitchman around, won't even consider an offer under $1 million.

Here's a list of what he and other top celebrities endorse, what we'd like to see them pitch, and what they'd never sell -- no matter how good the hype.

Michael Jordan

* Product: McDonald's, Nike, Haynes underwear, Gatorade, Ballpark Franks, Wilson Sporting Goods, General Mills and others.

* Success rate: King of the celebrity pitchmen. Not even reports of heavy gambling have hurt this superstar's image. Forbes magazine estimates that he made $32 million in 1992 from endorsements alone.

* What we'd like to see him pitch: Norelco razor. We'd love to see the Santa shaver skidding down his skull.

* What he won't pitch: Harrah's.

Michael Jackson

* Product: Pepsi.

* Success rate: Mixed. Sued by LA Gear for failing to promote shoes, then went on to sign a two-year, $50 million contract with Pepsi. Future endorsements depend on outcome of child-abuse allegations.

* Products we'd like to see him pitch: Jock-Itch.

* What he won't pitch: LaToya's next book.

Cindy Crawford

* Products: Pepsi, Revlon.

* Success rate: Supermodel now superspokeswoman. Host of MTV's "House of Style." Has a hit workout video and a million-dollar deal with Revlon.

* What we'd like to see her pitch: Health care reform. After all, she's in great health.

* What she won't pitch: Or rather, what she shouldn't pitch -- anything that requires her to sing. Remember the Charlie ad?

Burt Reynolds

* Product: Former spokesman for the Florida Citrus Commission.

* Success rate: An ugly divorce. Wife-cheating. Dark moods. Not the kind of All-American image the Florida Citrus Commission wants. So they dropped him -- for Peter Graves.

* Products we'd like to see him pitch: Hair Club for Men.

* What he won't pitch: The Diamond Center with its motto: "Tell her you'll marry her all over again."

Candice Bergen

* Product: Sprint.

* Success rate: Must be successful; she's been doing it for years.

* What we'd like to see her pitch: Dan Quayle's autobiography.

* What she won't pitch: Dan Quayle's autobiography.

Bo Jackson

* Product: Nike.

* Success rate: Mixed. Injuries have plagued the two-sport athlete. Don't expect his Nike contract to be renewed.

* What we'd like to see him pitch: Ben-Gay.

* What he won't pitch: NFL football.

Cher

* Product: Equal.

* Success rate: Very successful. Has parlayed success to infomercials.

* What we'd like to see her pitch: "Hang Out Your Poetry," the new album by the group Ceremony, which features her daughter, Chastity Bono.

* What she won't pitch: Plastic surgery.

PEPSI'S FIZZLES

Pepsi has a lot of experience in dealing with celebrity endorsers and controversy. Here's a list of some of them:

* 1984: Michael Jackson burns his hair while filming a commercial for Pepsi. The beverage company is criticized for taking unnecessary risks while filming.

* 1990: Michael Jackson admits he doesn't drink Pepsi.

* 1990: Pepsi fires Madonna as one of its endorsers after the company received numerous complaints about religious imagery in her "Like a Prayer" video, which aired on MTV. The company pulls an ad featuring the pop star and lets her $5 million contract expire.

* 1991: Mike Tyson is let go as Pepsi's endorser after reports that he beat his wife.

* 1993: Pepsi takes a wait-and-see approach when child-abuse allegations are made against pop superstar and Pepsi endorser Michael Jackson.

"Pepsi has had a lot of bad luck with this kind of thing," says Marcy Margiera, a reporter for Advertising Age. "But they've also gotten a lot of free publicity from it."

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