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Celebrity Endorsement Deals Gone Astray

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When a celebrity is the center of controversy, many advertisers can't afford to wait the situation out. The damage may be done. Companies may have to distance themselves before their own reputation is tarnished.

Kobe Bryant's family-friendly endorsement deals with Nutella and McDonald's came to a quick end after he was accused of rape. Pepsi shied away from Madonna after her Like a Prayer video aired. Dell quietly let spokesman Benjamin Curtis's contract expire after he was arrested for allegedly trying to buy marijuana. Sears and Federal Express yanked their sponsorships of Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher called Americans "cowards" for "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," post September 11.

After Magic Johnson went public with his HIV diagnosis, his ads were pulled from the air and his endorsement deals were not renewed. In mid-July 2003, he signed with Lincoln Mercury, the first endorsement deal he had inked since he told the world he's HIV-positive back in 1991.

Being HIV-positive didn't necessarily scare away advertisers, though. Experts say Johnson admitting he had an affair, and that that was how he'd contracted the disease that causes AIDS, contributed to companies avoiding him as a spokesman.

But what about the flipside? Michael Jordan's image has survived adultery, a gambling scandal, a minor league baseball stint and an on-again, off-again basketball career.

There are exceptions and it's up to each company to decide what's right for them. No matter what they do, they won't make everyone happy.

Fans will be outraged that their favorite star got dumped by X company. Or the mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver will boycott X company if they keep the celebrity who was arrested for his third DUI offense.

It's important to remember that when a company signs a celebrity endorser, they're signing an image. A certain stigma attached. We're talking multi-million dollar deals and any company should get what they pay for.

You wouldn't want Dennis Rodman endorsing a line of children's toys and SpongeBob SquarePants endorsing a brand of beer. Companies have to evaluate the individual's image and reputation to make sure it matches their own needs.

They have to be very careful when they find themselves in touchy situations. The wait and see game can only fend off a curious public for so long.

By nature, people are not so forgiving. And they never forget. Businesses must take every means necessary to protect their own reputation or they'll surely suffer.

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