The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement

What Happens When a Star Steps Out of Bounds?

Felicia M. Miller Marquette University felicia.miller@ Gene R. Laczniak Marquette University eugene.laczniak@

Celebrity athletes are a mainstay of popular culture and an increasingly important part of the marketing ecosystem. As product endorsers, they can influence brand attitudes and sales but also have broader societal implications for the firm. The recent string of bad behavior by celebrity athletes raises important ethical questions about firms that use the famous and infamous to endorse branded products. The conceptual framework presented in the current study provides a theoretical approach—based on virtue ethics—for evaluating the retention of tainted celebrity affiliates. This framework is applied to three well-known situations to examine the ethical implications of what initially were good choices for firms, their brands, and their consumers. The overarching goal of this article is to stimulate managers to think more deeply about the interconnections between their core company values, the athlete endorsers they select, and the ultimate effect of those decisions on their brands in the marketplace if things go wrong.

INTRODUCTION Celebrities seemingly are everywhere—television, magazines, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. Celebrities, broadly defined, are well-known individuals who receive significant media attention (McCracken, 1989). These public figures include actors, athletes, musicians, models, and even chefs, authors, journalists, and politicians. They are created, promoted, and sold to us through the mass media. As consumers, we “buy” celebrities by going to their movies, watching them play a sport, and listening to their music, insights, or witticisms. In addition to selling themselves, celebrities also endorse goods, services, and ideas. In this function, they lend their name, their image and, most important, their personal meaning to the brands they promote. Using a celebrity athlete to endorse a product is a tempting strategic proposition for advertisers and marketers because it holds the promise of higher awareness (Carison and Donavan, 2008) and greater consumer loyalty (Bush, Martin, and

Bush, 2004). In 2009, sports sponsorship spending was $11.2 billion (Fitch, Ozanian, and Badenhausen, 2010). Nike, for instance, spent more than $4 billion in 2009 for the privilege of having the world’s greatest athletes represent its products (Kaplan, 2010). As witnessed by the recent scandal surrounding Tiger Woods, however, these types of investments have downside risks. In addition to disappointing financial returns, the selection of an athlete also can raise questions about a firm’s ethical standards and judgment. Of course, some firms actively seek a “bad-boy” endorser who can appeal to a particular target demographic (Burton, Farrelly, and Quester, 2001); others find themselves saddled with an endorser who gets caught “behaving badly.” In either case, firms can jeopardize their ethical reputation (and more) when they enter into an endorsement relationship with a well-known athlete (Laczniak, Burton, and Murphy 1999). The conceptual commentary presented here develops a virtue-ethics-based framework for

DOI: 10.2501/JAR-51-3-499-510September 2011  JOURNAL


• Implicit endorsement (“I use this product”) • Co-present endorsement (“I merely appear with this product”). to examine firm decisions regarding the continued use of three celebrity athletes after questionable “offthe-field” behavior. In 1989. brand. A company’s image can also be negatively affected by the firm’s decision to retain an endorser who is involved in a negative event for which he is to blame (Louie and Obermiller. it is the celebrity’s cultural meaning and the transfer of that meaning that influence effectiveness as an endorser. 2007). ethics-based perspective for analyzing such endorsement decisions. Allowing a celebrity athlete to represent a brand is a high-risk/high-reward proposition and is becoming more perilous (Brodesser-Akner. Sternthal. 1994). Brand. In the end. 1991. 1990). 1986).. marketers spend billions of dollars on celebrities who endorse everything from athletic shoes to vacation destinations. the choice of celebrity should be based on what meaning the marketer wants to instill in their product.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement Celebrity athletes are a mainstay of popular culture and an increasingly important part of the marketing ecosystem.” • Stage 2: The athletes’ meaning is instilled in a given product through the advertising system.) 500  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH September 2011 . 2004). THE CELEBRITY ENDORSER The use of celebrity endorsers can be traced back to the late 1800s (Erdogan. risks. In extreme instances of endorsements gone awry. 310).g. and ethical implications of choosing and keeping an athlete endorser. and Moe. In such cases. 2010). 2000) • Trustworthiness (Ohanian. Kamins. 1989. Other research. 1989. 1959. From a consumer culture perspective. This issue is discussed at the firm. It begins with a review of the endorsement literature. the sponsoring firm may receive negative publicity and social pressure to respond to the actions of their paid affiliate. McCracken. Empirical results are strongest when the celebrity is judged to “match” with the product. This results in a general framework that can be adopted by firms that aspire to a higher and more consistent standard of morality in their advertising practices. Levy.g. 1977. Hoeke. 2008). however. Findings suggest that these characteristics include the following: • Attractiveness (Kamins. has found that an expert celebrity athlete does not always produce positive outcomes for a well-known brand (Koernig and Boyd. For example. This is followed by a discussion of virtue-based ethics and its relevance for advertising professionals. 1978). examining the use and retention of celebrity athletes to endorse branded products. 1990) • Expertise (Till and Busler. 2002). in the pages of the Journal of Consumer Research. Stanley. Each year. Jeff Gordon and DuPont). and Leavitt. This process evolves in three stages: • Stage 1: The athlete acquires meaning from his or her public roles on and off the “field. (In this stage. The conventional academic approach to researching “celebrity effects” has focused on endorsers’ characteristics that will likely result in more positive (or negative) attitudes toward an endorsed brand (Dholakia and Sternthal. Phil Mickelson and Callaway Golf) or has a significant. post facto. and Priluck. Dholakia. The framework is then used. Mick. Advertisers are more cautious than ever with endorsement deals because of the ongoing barrage of counterproductive pairings. The definition includes the following: • Explicit endorsement (“I recommend this product”) This definition clearly includes both the celebrity athlete who is an expert in the product category (e.. Athletes represent a significant portion of overall celebrity endorsements (Bush et al. particularly when the endorser is perceived as an expert on the product or product category (Kamins and Gupta. 1999). 2009).. this article helps illuminate some of the potential benefits. longterm association with the brand (e. p. McCracken. In addition. more positive attitudes were attributed toward a fictitious product (Laparo sport drink) when it was paired with a celebrity athlete (Michael Jordan) than when it was matched with a non-athlete celebrity (Pierce Brosnan) (Till. McCracken described how celebrities—including athletes—obtained and transferred cultural meaning to the brands they endorsed. the process that drives celebrity endorsement success has been explained as meaning transfer (Langmeyer and Walker. the surge in negative attention can have a short-term effect on a firm’s stock price (Knittel and Stango. in one study. and consumer levels and provides managers with a novel. defined the celebrity endorser as “any individual who enjoys public recognition and who uses this recognition on behalf of a consumer good by appearing with it in an advertisement” (McCracken 1989.

1993). Paris Hilton. Langmeyer. Interestingly. In a business context. The corporate popularity of the “servantleadership” model might also be viewed through a virtue-ethics lens whereby the servant leader foregoes the more bombastic leadership characteristics of dynamism and high visibility for the (more virtuous) person-centered ones of empathy.” “trashy. in a direct test of the second stage of McCracken’s model. and Langmeyer. “controversial. Logic suggests that this same sort of meaning-transfer VIRTUE-BASED ETHICS Virtue ethics is a comprehensive theory of ethics based on the notion that persons (and organizations) have an obligation to aspire to noble ideals so that. GSD&M. temperance (i. Such lists have typically included decisiveness. 2005). it nevertheless possesses its own internal logic. “North Americans are not star crazy but merely active consumers of the meanings that are made available by the celebrity world” (McCracken.. 113). and trust. and Klein. justice. p. 1984). under review). and exceptional customer loyalty. in fact. advertising agency. efficiency. The ancient Greeks—and Aristotle. an Austin. exchange. Specifically. businesses develop virtue by habitually satisfaction or employee September 2011  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH  501 . there has been a modern revival of virtue-based ethics as an approach to business mission and management. Polls of managers consistently have revealed a certain set of virtues that tend to be associated with effective and fairminded business leaders (Laczniak and Murphy. in fact.e. • Stage 3: The consumer appropriates the product’s new meaning into her or his life. used appeals to virtue to argue that business practices such as price gouging and the non-disclosure of significant property defects were unethical because they would be destructive to the trust necessary for future commercial transactions (MacIntyre. and prudence—the community would flourish in a more effective and equitable manner.” and “cheap”). More recently. this might involve benchmarking the practices of other business organizations that have been acclaimed as “virtuous” for their superior product innovations. integrity. the process that drives celebrity endorsement success has been explained as meaning transfer. The research found that a celebrity’s meaning does affect the meaning of a generic product. This shift. when encountering a difficult situation with moral implications. Although the virtue-ethics approach is not composed of specific decision rules. • Virtue is developed over time by repetition.e. and care for the product. produced a more negative attitude toward the brand. and Jessica Simpson).” For example. independence. One study used a 25-item semantic differential scale to assess celebrity and product meaning before and after endorsement (Walker. As McCracken has noted. This preoccupation with the famous (and the infamous) is consistent with consumer efforts to continually redefine themselves with respect to the culture in which they live. Texas. 1992). self control). and ”responsibility”—into the foyer of corporate Laczniak. actually carved its guiding its values—including headquarters “integrity” (Murphy. Bowie. in particular—maintained that individuals had a duty to improve their character to contribute to the community of which they were a part. 2005.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement From a consumer culture perspective. they will be disposed “out of habit” to do the right thing (Laczniak and Murphy. The idea was that in subscribing to characteristics that had been broadly acclaimed as “good” and “noble”—virtues such as courage. This process occurs through ritualistic use. values as part of their formal mission statements and code of ethics. 1977). McCracken’s threestage process occurs within the larger cultural context of a celebrity world that seems to fascinate many people. research disclosed that celebrity meaning is transferred to the brand (Miller and Allen. 1999). Many organizations list assorted process occurs for celebrity athletes who endorse products. long-term social responsibility. beliefs about the brand were more consistent with the beliefs about each celebrity (i. After the pairing. In North America. The Roman Cicero. 1993). Just as a person becomes a good chess player by studying and playing that game for thousands of hours. including the following: • The virtues that should be emulated often are found in role models thought by society to be moral exemplars. loyalty and trust-building (Greenleaf. An underlying and important assumption behind the virtues approach was that personal contribution to the betterment of the community—through individual selfimprovement—was an understood obligation of good citizenship (Solomon. Such “corporate values” can be readily seen as a modern day synonym for the more classical terminology of “virtues. the Gap brand was paired with a trio of “controversial” female celebrities (Britney Spears..

“to each her own”). For advertisers. 502  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH September 2011 . 2005). Like any audit. value-driven positioning requires tracking to establish whether the business values espoused by the Operationalize these key characteristics into the marketing strategy and tactics of the organization. In practice.e. new values essential to the firm’s evolving self identity will be added. it is through the cultivation of practical wisdom that the ancient concept of virtue ethics becomes truly meaningful (Williams and Murphy. 2010). as suggested earlier. the company was an early participant in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (Ward and Grant. it is the possession of the essential qualities necessary to make wise and dependable judgments on a consistent and ongoing basis. What is more valuable to the twenty-firstcentury enterprise than the likelihood that its key decision makers will respond appropriately when facing complex advertising issues? Virtue ethics makes compelling sense because it provides a normative ethical template against which advertising practices can be tested. 1990). In the absence of explicit corporate values. For those few firms that do not have their own distinct corporate culture or statement on ethics. sometimes referred to as the “ethic of the mean. the firm has worked with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to eliminate the sale of its high-calorie beverages in United States elementary. • Virtue ethics requires an inherent recognition of the importance of balance. advertisers are left with only ethical relativism (i. the AMA Code can serve as a “default” template for defining ideal virtues.” these six values are designed specifically and discussed in sufficient business detail for purposes of helping shape admirable Monitor whether the central and professed virtues of the enterprise are followed with sufficient constancy. middle. Since 2007. the American Marketing Association (AMA) provides a set of values that ought to be seriously considered as central virtues to be embraced as a matter of course. it is through the cultivation of practical wisdom that the ancient concept of virtue ethics becomes truly meaningful. Without some standard to arbitrate the consistency of advertising messages being sent (including reevaluations of a campaign when circumstances change). but such economic courage also requires being neither too risk averse nor too overly aggressive in their strategies. the firm may be in ethical jeopardy.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement cultivating the critical characteristics of trustworthiness. virtuous behaviors involve striking just the right balance of a certain quality at the right time. Unlike other sets of “virtues. certain values will have already been articulated by the firm’s mission statement and perhaps ingrained into the very DNA of the corporate culture over time. companies must be courageous in seizing economic opportunity. PepsiCo should select athletes who embody its core values.” Typically. The six foundational values set forth in the AMA’s Statement on Ethics (2008) are as follows: • Honesty • Responsibility • Fairness • Respect • Transparency • Citizenship. Such practical wisdom (or praxis) is the gold standard of virtue ethics. integrity. PepsiCo recently announced the launch of a similar program outside the United States (Associated Press.. the advertiser that aspires to a virtue-ethics standard of morality should generally adhere to the following procedures: Identify the key virtues that embody the company’s philosophy. For example. marketing behavior consistent with societal expectations and professional norms. In other cases. In addition. PepsiCo has fulfilled its commitment to advertise and market to children only those products that meet specific nutrition criteria intended to encourage the consumption of healthier food and beverage products. responsibility. In some instances. Our Consumers and the World We Live in” as one of its guiding principles. To integrate this mission into its endorsement practices. VIRTUE ETHICS AND ADVERTISING PRACTICE For advertisers. The consequence of subscribing to these three dimensions is to create managers— or even entire corporate cultures—that are rich in practical wisdom. Consistent with this mission. and high schools. and so forth. Case in point: PepsiCo lists “Care for Our Customers. When the implied “values” of the firm are inconsistent with the “good” of the community.

To this end. Michael Phelps. other measures include the following: • Environmental impact—conditions intentionally trying to shape the meaning of their brand such that it is more consistent with that of the characteristics embodied by the athlete. energy. 2007). it is important to recall that the meaningtransfer model of celebrity endorsement is based on the idea that firms are Identify • Review corporate values and principles. When considering this framework. values concerned with elevating customer relationships are of particular interest. the authors conclude with firmlevel implications and recommendations on how to manage an athlete endorser before and after his “fall from grace. Since the marketing function of an enterprise is fundamentally consumer-oriented­ . many companies experiment­ with a “triple-bottom-line” approach to assessing the effectiveness of their operations (Elkington. the values or virtues between the sponsor and its celebrity athlete endorser should be harmonious. and Tiger Woods. marketers and their advertising agencies initially must select athlete endorsers who seem to represent the qualities the brand aspires to. the firm’s own mission statement. These three were selected for discussion because they have represented the highest level of achievement in their respective sports. This is followed by an assessment of the firm’s reaction to the athlete’s behavior based on its professed corporate values and public statements. Such a metric necessarily includes explicit reference to the values that the company claims to hold central. Figure 1 Virtue Ethics Framework for Celebrity Athlete Endorsers September 2011  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH  503 . • Consider the likelihood of negative “off-the-field” behavior. Laczniak. however. in these instances. its code of ethics. the enterprise must reassess the endorsement relationship considering the costs and benefits of continuing to allow the celebrity athlete to represent the brand. In such instances.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement organization hold up through all kinds of marketing communications. Because economic institutions are an important part of the larger social fabric of a community. we examine the endorsement relationships of three well-known celebrity athletes: Kobe Bryant. however. mining) • Social sustainability—the attempt to measure the social impact of doing business on all societal stakeholders. In the material that follows. To illustrate the usefulness of this framework and the complexity of ethical transgression. 1998). If at some point. or even a restatement of the AMA’s Statement of Ethics can provide a lens through which marketers can assess—and reassess—their decisions with respect to celebrity endorsements. corporations also have a vital role and responsibility to promulgate healthy values in their promotional campaigns to the society at large—beyond simply customer trust. a case has been made in the literature that the virtue of trust is the primary quality in the enhancement of customer relationships (Murphy. In this regard. the authors provide a brief background for each athlete. Continually vetting celebrity–athlete endorsers for their continued congruence with company values would seem a logical extension of such thinking. The procedure described above provides an ethical framework for evaluating endorsement decisions (See Figure 1). In addition to the standard financial metrics. heavy manufacturing. In other words. and Wood.g.” that are increasingly required by law in certain industries (e. Monitor • Reassess endorsement relationship if there are changes in the athlete’s meaning.. with notation of his indiscretions and the firms he represented before and after the incident. Operationalize • Ensure that celebrity athlete matches the firm’s espoused values at the time of selection. • Adapt values from AMA Statement of Ethics. In addition. an ethical transgression has likely occurred. continuing or deferring an endorsement relationship. the endorser’s cultural meaning or essential qualities conflict with the central values of the firm. each has amassed lucrative product endorsements that they subsequently lost owing to their negative “off-the-field” behavior. • Understand the implications of discontinuing. Through the lens of an ethical framework. At the outset. And.

the criminal case was dismissed in September 2004 (Saporito. Phelps also represented Speedo. Subway. In June. He won two tournaments in his first year on the PGA tour and was named Rookie of the Year and one of the most renowned sports runs—of any kind—was on.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement THE CELEBRITY–ATHLETE ENDORSER: THREE TRANSGRESSORS Kobe Bryant: 2003–2009 The Los Angeles Lakers won three NBA championships (2000–2002) during Kobe Bryant’s first seven seasons with the team. During that time. 2003. Two days later. Subway began airing a series of ads entitled “Be Yourself” featuring Phelps and long-time brand spokesman Jared Fogel (Heil. Jack. 2009. After the 2008 Olympics. a device commonly used to inhale marijuana (York and Mullman. In January 2009. Contributing more than $100 million per year to his on-the-course earnings were lucrative endorsement relationships that included Nike. McDonald’s. 2009). in an Internet post. 2004). and Coca-Cola (Sprite). The company spokesperson indicated that “Michael’s most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg’s” (Vranica and Futterman. the sport’s national governing body. 15-year-old Michael Phelps became the youngest male ever to set a world record in swimming (Phelps and Cazeneuve. the brand launched Bryant’s fifth signature shoe. 2008). In a tearful press conference with his wife. Kellogg’s announced that it would not renew his contract. London’s News of the World published a picture of Phelps in which he appeared to be smoking from a bong. Phelps’ newest partner. Since 2006. Colorado. Woods reportedly was involved in a one-car automobile accident just outside his home in a Florida gated community.S. He went on to win a gold medal at the 2001 World Championships. In September. in January 201. when he appeared in a controversial set of television advertisements (Mahoney.S. Nutella. Michael Phelps: 2008–2010 At the 2001 Spring Nationals. 2009). and a civil lawsuit was settled the following March (Staff Reporter. Bryant has been featured in numerous Nike television campaigns and. Omega watches. and did not return to competition until May 2009 (York and Mullman. 2009). he had amassed an unprecedented three U. Bryant admitted that he had had sex with a 19-year old hotel employee but claimed it was consensual (Surico. Woods took responsibility for the accident. Kellogg’s featured Phelps on several product packages. Junior Amateur Championships and three U. In 2008. Bryant also has several other smaller endorsement deals including one with Coca-Cola (Vitamin Water). Phelps signed endorsement deals with Kellogg’s (August) and Subway (December). Nutella. 2003). praised his wife’s attempts to aid him after the crash. By contrast. By the time he became a professional golfer in 1996. Bryant received four All-NBA honors and made All-Star game appearances. He signed a 7-year contract extension 2 months before the criminal case was dismissed. Hilton Hotels. and Visa also continued their relationship with Phelps. Tiger Woods: 2009–2010 In 1978. provocative “Love Me or Hate Me” commercials that did not directly address the sexual assault case but clearly spoke to mixed fan reaction. at the age of two. Fortune magazine reported that his career earnings had reached 10 figures (Badenhausen. Accenture. an 504  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH September 2011 . In the weeks to come. and Coca-Cola (Sprite) opted not to renew endorsement deals with Bryant shortly after he was charged with felony sexual assault. 2005). Eldrick (“Tiger”) Woods showcased his golf skills against comedian Bob Hope on “The Mike Douglas Show”. In July 2003. By September 2009. To date. 2009). 2009). Subway planned television advertisements that were to air in early 2009 (Anonymous. he became the first athlete to win eight gold medals at a single Olympic games. 2006)—a series of defiant. at the age of 19. Bryant signed a 4-year. and asked for privacy. Amateur Championships. 2008). 2009. Omega. Speedo extended its partnership with Phelps through 2013 (Associated Press. became the first athlete to win eight medals (six gold and two bronze) at a fully attended Olympics. Bryant maintained his innocence and continued to be an active member of the Lakers. AT&T. On November 27. After more than a year of media coverage and public speculation. Phelps was suspended from competition for 3 months by USA Swimming. He also apologized for “using bad judgment” and vowed not to make this mistake again (Crouse. which was set to expire at the end of February. 2009). and Gillette. Hilton. Nike kept Bryant under contract but did not feature him in any advertising or promotional materials until February 2006. 2009). After Phelps’ acknowledgment of his transgression. Throughout the legal process. In July 2009. Speedo. 2003) and was also representing McDonald’s. Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in Eagle. $40 million endorsement deal with Nike (Staff Reporter. and Visa. initially was hesitant to address the issue but eventually decided to keep him under contract but delay the advertising campaign (York. Tiger Woods has won 95 tournaments including 14 major championships. three gold medals at the 2003 World Championships and. 2009). Phelps confirmed that the photograph was a picture of him at a party in November 2008.

The elder Woods speaks to his son and says. father and person. For example. (This last group includes firms that kept the athlete under contract but explicitly indicated that they would limit or delay using the athlete’s image for some period of time. Accenture relies on these virtues to distinguish itself from its competitors and to establish long-term partnerships with their clients. 2010). which likely motivated their actions. When considered together. Woods returned to competition in April 2010 at the Masters. Woods announced he was taking an indefinite leave from the game of professional golf to focus on being “a better husband. and fairness. respect. epitomized by The New York Post’s “Tiger Woods’ Babes: 2010 Calendar” and reported Tiger sightings at a Mississippi clinic that specializes in the treatment of sex addition (Martinez. “I want to find out what your thinking was… what your feelings are. the golf pro’s biggest endorsement partner.” After his self-imposed exile. For these enterprises. these core values go a long way to creating practical wisdom—that characteristic of “good that discontinued their endorsement relationship in the wake of Kobe Bryant McDonald’s Sprite Nutella Michael Phelps Tiger Woods Accenture AT&T Discontinue Kellogg’s Firm Actions Continue Nike Speedo Omega Hilton Hotels Visa Nike EA Sports Upper Deck Defer Subway Gillette Tag Heuer Figure 2 Summary of Firm Actions September 2011  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH  505 . announced its support for Woods. a global business consultancy whose long-running advertising campaign featured Woods’ golf course judgment as a surrogate for its wise counsel.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement array of sordid details focusing on numerous extramarital affairs began to emerge. and did you learn anything. On December 2. there appeared to be a clear connection between living their professed ethical values and their business strategy. who is credited with cultivating his son’s golf talent and mental toughness from an early age. instead. as did EA Sports (golf video game) and Upper Deck (Tiger Woods action figure). On the first day of competition. dropped him as an endorser on December 13.” LESSONS IN ETHICAL DECISION MAKING Looking across the three celebrity athletes’ situations. they are a function of the firm’s actions and their ethical implications. • AT&T announced that it would no longer sponsor Tiger Woods on the golf course. 2009). Woods’s actions and his unexpected hiatus from golf gave his endorsement partners an opportunity to reevaluate their relationship with him: • Accenture. the AT&T logo had been emblazoned on Woods’ golf bag during the 2009 season (Vranica. Nike ran a television advertisement featuring Woods and the voice of his late father.” Just a little more than a week later. 2010). Woods posted another statement on his Web site acknowledging that “he has not been true to his values” and expressing regret for his “transgressions. • Gillette (razors) and Tag Heuer (watches) announced that they would limit the use of Woods’ image in future advertising. 2010). clear themes emerge related to the firm’s actions after the scandal. where he finished in fourth place. Accenture’s success as a global consultancy firm is based on a core Code of Business Ethics—virtues that included integrity. • Nike. These themes are not specific to any one athlete or one enterprise. the media firestorm grew. 2009 (McCarthy. 2009. Gillette characterized its actions as a long “timeout” (Dorman. The companies that sponsored the endorsements can be grouped into three categories (See Figure 2): • Those that decided to discontinue the endorsement relationship • Those that decided to continue the relationship • Those that deferred their decision.) Discontinued Relationship The strongest lessons came from those organizations scandal.

And although the change was unique for each athlete. which remained intact after the scandal. In a statement of support for Michael Phelps. it seems clear that the celebrity’s meaning was still valuable to the brand—more so than acting in accordance with the ethical values they espoused. lists “honesty. and other firms that continued with associations with the athletes heavily weighted the athlete’s sports-related associations. and accountability. When Woods behaved in a way that was contrary to the firm’s values. Nike decided that adultery— an offense that both Woods and Bryant both admitted to—did not violate its corporate values. but the media is making a big deal out of it right now” (Mickle.” “concern for others.” and “respect for people” among its corporate values. Accenture was compelled to discontinue its relationship with him. a celebrity’s meaning is an important factor in his or her success as an endorser. uses sports terminology to describe the company’s core values: “honesty. As a corporate spokesperson unambiguously stated. The actions of these firms. the firms that deferred their decision also sought to protect the long-term potential of the endorsement.” For these companies. For the firms that discontinued the relationship. “Obviously. He is a great player. also seemed to express ambivalence toward their corporate values. However.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement judgment” so essential to a respected organization and the gold standard virtue ethics. Deferred Endorsement Decisions Like the firms that continued the relationships. 506  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH September 2011 . Continued Relationship For those firms that decided to keep their endorsements in place even in the face of presumed scandal.” Nike’s reaction to Tiger Woods’ alleged serial infidelity was similar. he was one we checked out and he came out clean. An examination of the Accenture print and television ads clearly suggests that these virtues also played an important role in the 6-year campaign that featured Tiger Woods.” “fairness. given the circumstances of the last two weeks… the company has determined that [Tiger Woods] is no longer the right representative for its advertising. 2009).” “fairness. the exceptional performance and talent of the athlete in his sport was clearly more relevant than his “out-of-the-pool” indiscretions. “Michael’s most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg’s. For the past six years. however. you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip. humility. Nike’s “Inside the Lines” Code of Ethics. A business consulting firm that tries to operate without perceived integrity and sound judgment may as well dissolve itself. Accenture and Tiger Woods have had a very successful sponsorship arrangement and his achievements on the golf course have been a powerful metaphor for business success in Accenture’s advertising. against their corporate values.” Although the decision to discontinue the endorsement relationship appeared to be rooted in the firm’s ethical values. McDonald’s. For each of these celebrities.” “trustworthiness. the company said.” “loyalty. Nike’s decision to keep Bryant under contract was clearly a move to retain the option to capitalize on his powerful meaning in the future. the companies that continued their endorsement relationship undoubtedly considered the celebrity’s “post-scandal” meaning in their ultimate decision. As Accenture states. Hilton Hotels Corporation issued a similar statement: “We continue to support Michael Phelps as an athlete whose numerous athletic feats outshine an act of regrettable behavior. Nutella. In both cases. It is reasonable to assume that Nike. a Nike spokesperson declined to comment on the legal case but offered. In addition. When asked about their newly signed celebrity athlete shortly after he was charged with sexual assault.” As a matter of policy. their focus on products for children and families has heightened their need to maintain an image consistent with the values they espouse. for instance. As discussed earlier. Company cofounder Phil Knight commented. Speedo. Speedo. there may have been other motivations. Speedo would like to make it clear that it does not condone such behavior and we know Michael truly regrets his action… Michael is a valued member of the Speedo team and a great champion. We will do all that we can to support him and his family. Kellogg’s corporate values include integrity.” and “accountability. Nike employees are required to review “Inside the Lines” annually and acknowledge their understanding of the policies. Like Accenture. Finally. questionable behavior changed that meaning. Despite this strong internal stance. for instance. they all gained an element of controversy as well as public disgrace that was not previously part of their meaning profile. and Kellogg’s consider themselves brands whose imagery is closely tied to their corporate values. however. and I think he’s been really great. When his career is over. These values are represented in the company’s decision to end their endorsement relationship with Michael Phelps after his drug related incident. EA Sports. “We are pleased to have a relationship with Kobe Bryant. this change in meaning made the athlete’s endorsement significantly less appealing for their brand.

it is sometimes permissible to use illegal drugs). Given this. the savvy advertiser should have a plan for distancing itself and its brands from a tainted endorser. In this manner. “Like most Americans and like Michael Phelps himself. firms should develop an “exit strategy” that clearly delineates what actions will be taken if the endorser’s meaning shifts away from the firm’s espoused values.The Ethics of Celebrity–Athlete Endorsement On the one hand. a firm that is slow to react can be cast as socially irresponsible—a perception that can have a negative. etc. For some. • In an increasingly crowded marketplace and challenging economic environment. friends and fans … As Tiger takes a break from the public eye we will support his desire for privacy by limiting his role in our marketing programs. leadership.g. it can be argued that they not only are shaping brand meaning but are creating social messages for which they bear some responsibility. such language provides little protection from the negative effects Based on an analysis of the three situations. For example. • The common use of athletes in promotional campaigns seems to be a reflection of the celebrity culture in which we live. community involvement. Stipulating that “meaning transfer” transpires when sponsors select a celebrity endorser. 2001). brand evaluation. more consumers have turned to corporate reputation (e.g. In a statement. Consumer responses to advertising communications using celebrities (e. green marketing) as a means to differentiate brands and guide purchases (Sen and Bhattacharya. Guarding against this possibility begins with continually vetting all endorsers. • Advertisers must respond promptly when there is a real or perceived tension between achieving commercial success and adhering to its professed values to protect its social reputation. 2010). at some point in the future. there are some important recommendation for advertising managers as an extension of our virtue ethics framework. Danica Patrick’s sexually provocative ads for GoDaddy. • Of equal—if not greater—importance is the need to consider the likelihood that. certain endorsement choices send troubling social and cultural messages. Moving forward. the company noted.. • Although legally actionable “morality clauses” in endorsement contracts allow marketers to terminate endorsement relationships.g. there are some important recommendation for advertising managers as an extension of our virtue ethics framework. the athlete could acquire meaning that would conflict with the firm’s espoused values. This moderate response for the leading consumer packaged-goods company seemed to fly in the face of its professed corporate values of trust. In these instances. Procter & Gamble’s Gillette walked a fine line in its statement regarding its relationship with Woods: In the midst of a difficult and unfortunate situation.. integrity. these firms seemed to be aware of the risks (ethical. Rather than waiting for a firestorm to erupt. they also reinforced stereotypes September 2011  JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH  507 . the celebrity endorser’s “unacceptable” behavior can have on the brand. financial. Although some may opine that a sponsoring firm could not have known about Woods’ secret life.” IMPLICATIONS FOR CELEBRITYENDORSEMENT MANAGEMENT What strategic propositions can be inferred from all of the foregoing? Based on an analysis of the three situations.g. we accept his apology. For example. virtue ethics. Subway took a similar “middle-of-theroad” position with Michael Phelps when it removed his image from its Web site and delayed his television campaign for 6 months.. ongoing due diligence may have uncovered this character defect years before his fateful car accident (Barra.. Subway/ Michael Phelps) can (and often does) result in increased product consumption (e. longterm impact on company reputation.) associated with their athlete-endorser but were unwilling to take a definitive stance at the time of the incident. we were disappointed in his behavior… Also like most Americans. as discussed earlier. and sales. sandwiches) but may also reinforce messages that are not socially desirable (e. we respect the action Tiger is taking to restore the trust of his family. • In addition to monitoring endorser behavior. he remains in our gained significant media attention for the brand. Whether intentional or not. however. both intrinsically and to the extent it may affect the bottom line. and a passion for winning. virtue matters. should be used as an essential first screen for the selection of ethically appropriate brand-athlete pairings.

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