Be careful who hawks your product Last summer’s demise of Whoopi Goldberg’s Slim-Fast endorsement contract is just the latest in a long history of celebrity/product scandal. The selling power of famous spokespeople is unquestioned. Yet, when a celebrity is tainted by negative behavior or accusations of illegality, the marketing practice can tragically backfire. Goldberg and Slim-Fast, Kobe Bryant and McDonald’s, Martha Stewart and her entire empire, and the Olsen Twins and “Got Milk?” are only the most recent examples of the imbroglio. Increasingly, marketing firms and advertising companies are opting for non-human spokes-characters. The theory behind this, of course, is that an animated figure or charming logo can’t become embroiled in controversy. Additionally, the figure itself is a marketable entity, for sale on shelves across the country. This theory of endorsement, however, is not without its own flaws, as a recent spate of scandal indicates:

Arby’s Oven Mitt: This animated character interacts with food service personnel while it hawks the products of this fast food giant. In legal documents just made public, a pair of Playtex Living Gloves has charged Oven Mitt with sexual harassment. According to the charges, Oven Mitt groped the unnamed Playtex Living Gloves accuser backstage at a fund-raising event where Oven Mitt was the keynote speaker. The accuser claims that Oven Mitt, while signing an autograph for her, tried to convince her that a glove-to-mitten coupling was “An experiment waiting to happen.” When she refused, Oven Mitt embraced her anyway, “tweaking” her back with his thumb. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for the spring.

Serta Perfect Mattress: This series of ads, featuring animated sheep that have been rendered obsolete in assisting human sleep, have been a hit with both adults and children. Unfortunately for Serta, the sheep were photographed last week in an as yet unnamed small town in Nebraska, engaged in questionable sexual acts with a farmer. If these photos prove to be authentic — they reportedly were taken by the farmer’s wife — Serta most certainly will be searching for another tactic to sell its products.

AOL.COM: This animated logo is featured in various action-scenarios. Controversy erupted, however, when the logo admitted to a long history of what it called “icon synergy.” In a confessional press conference, the bright-yellow figure tearfully revealed that it had engaged in a series of relationships over the years, including a long affair with the Nike Swoosh. Other involvements include trysts with the logos for companies such as SBC, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Lowe’s Home Improvement that resulted in insider trading opportunities that the SEC is currently investigating.

Pillsbury Dough Boy: One of the longest-running ad icons, this cherubic character has delighted young and old for decades. That all came to a crashing halt last year when it was discovered that the Dough Boy was a major player in an energy price-fixing scheme, a caper cooked up by none other than the similarly-fallen Michelin Tire Man.

Honeycomb Cereal: Adorning this popular cereal box are a series of pop-eyed, hairy creatures who, with mouths agape, portray their obvious glee for Honeycomb. Neuroscientists from Harvard University, however, have revealed that the characters are in fact not representations, but actual photos of the homunculi that reside in the human brain and are responsible for sugar addiction. Post, the company that makes Honeycomb Cereal, has refused to comment on this scientific report, scheduled to be published next week in Natural.

Fruity Pebbles: We hardly need be reminded of the fall-out that occurred early this year when it was discovered that Fred and Barney have been engaged in a homosexual relationship for over 65,000 years.

The ongoing controversy is not confined to the above examples, nor is it relegated only to spokes-characters who market sellable items.

Schwarzenegger bobble-head: When a company released a bobble-head version of the California governor last spring, the Schwarzenegger war-room was outraged, protesting an infringement of the action star/politician’s brand. As has recently been revealed, the concern was motivated by the fact that nearly all the Schwarzenegger bobble-heads, taken home by children and collectors, engaged in questionable behavior with the existing female dolls and stuffed animals in the households. Reports that the Schwarzenegger bobble-head also provided performance enhancement drugs to the dolls and animals are unconfirmed at this time.

The Schwarzenegger bobble-head controversy points toward a potential erosion of consumer confidence that in turn can reflect poorly upon the human version. Dale Kellery, a Manhattan-based marketing expert, has proposed a solution that embraces rather than eschews current phenomena. Kellery, who handles a number of large, national accounts, suggested that the deviant behavior of celebrity spokespeople can be exploited.

“If you’ve got a basketball star who is sexually promiscuous, even abusive,” Kellery said, “a condom company or sexual lubricant product is an automatic.” Martha Stewart, Kellery suggested, “could create a line of products using the most rudimentary decorative objects designed to spruce up the most spartan, minimal environs.”

The point is, he stressed, “Make the most of the least admirable quality your icon possesses. In other words, make lemonade out of your lemon.

“Just be careful,” he added, “who you get to hawk that lemonade.”


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