PRINT November 1988



ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PRINCIPLES we live by is loyalty. We strive to be loyal to our country, our family, our friends, and to the brands of products we consume. You might buy a car because it was made in the U.S.A., and you might buy a laundry detergent because your mother used it. In our consumer society, identities can be determined to a considerable extent by what a person consumes, so brand names become part of the family. And that’s why American business relies on brand loyalty. I use it because it’s family. It makes me feel secure. It’s always there for me.

It’s hard to argue against loyalty in most forms, though blind loyalty can certainly be dangerous, and maybe loyalty should be argued against more. The motto of the SS was “Thy Honor Is Thy Loyalty.” Loyalty can supersede good judgment. And it can go unreciprocated. Maybe loyalty is the biggest scam of all, because it so often turns out to be a one-way deal.

Mike Tyson, the scary but lovable heavyweight boxing champion of the world, has made a fortune with his fists, but he has also done rather well with his face, endorsing, among other things, Diet Pepsi (performing with his beautiful and charming wife, Robin Givens). But Mike has had some problems outside the ring. He was accosted on the streets of Harlem one 4:30 A.M. by a has-been heavyweight named Mitch Green, and wound up breaking his hand on Green’s face. Then, a few weeks later, Tyson crashed his wife’s BMW into a tree in what was later reported as a suicide attempt. Soon the papers were filled with allegations of radical mood swings, marital infidelity, and wife-beating, all of which were immediately denied by Tyson, his family, and his loyal wife.

Pepsi, on the other hand, did not stay in the champ’s corner. His TV spots, which were in heavy rotation at the time, were suddenly nowhere to be seen. Pepsi denied that it was dropping the champ permanently, and one New York sportswriter wryly commented that the Pepsi–Cola Company was simply observing the traditional two-year commercial-endorsement moratorium on attempted suicides. One might have expected more understanding from Pepsi, which, after all, has stuck with spokesperson Michael Jackson through his extensive plastic surgery, his split with his father and his church, his attempts to buy the remains of the Elephant Man, and despite the nagging question as to whether this health fanatic actually drinks Pepsi at all. (Though he was photographed a while ago holding a can of Budweiser beer.) Then again, perhaps they feel they owe Michael for flambéing his scalp once during the filming of a pyrotechnically enhanced commercial.

But doesn’t it look bad for Pepsi to abandon the champ just when he needs the support of his family and friends? Doesn’t brand loyalty work both ways?

Obviously not. And Pepsi is not alone. It is actually common practice for American corporations to turn coldly against their spokespersons at the first hint of embarrassment. For years, Marilyn Chambers was the model on the Ivory Snow soap box, but when the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, learned that she also appeared in X-rated films, it ditched her, at great expense in the changing of the packaging, even though her rise to fame was a great source of publicity for the product.

In fact, most corporate star-dumpings are related to morals violations. Vanessa Williams was stripped of her 1984 title as Miss America, a paragon of American endorsement-making ability, when she appeared stripped in Penthouse. And several prominent athletes have lost enormously lucrative endorsement deals when they have been linked to drug use. Olympian Ben Johnson, who lost his gold medal and world record when he was found to have been using steroids, is said to have lost $3 million in endorsements. Dwight Gooden, the star pitcher of the New York Mets, entered a drug rehabilitation program after testing positive for cocaine in a urine analysis, and, according to a Mets spokesperson, he resigned at the same time from his Nike shoe-endorsement contract. By resigning gracefully, Gooden may have earned himself a chance to endorse things again one day.

Pro athletes often earn much more from endorsements than from their salaries, large as these can be. Players who endorse things must live up to higher standards than those who just play the game. When they are banned from play for drug use the team almost always forgives them rather quickly; often they are paid full salary while they are suspended as long as they participate in authorized rehabilitation. (Being “banned for life” in the National Basketball Association actually only means staying out for two years.) But sponsors are not so forgiving, so loyal, so supportive. And perhaps they are not so needy of that unique pitching talent.

Bruce Willis, star of the enormously successful television series Moonlighting, was also star of the enormously successful Seagram’s Wine Cooler ads. And his reputation as a party animal even more animalistic than Budweiser’s Spuds MacKenzie did nothing but enhance his value as an alcohol spokesperson. Until he was reported to be attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It seems that in the world of liquor endorsements you are truly damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Even sadder is the case of the Beef Industry Council. This trade organization has had a rotten time with its spokesperson. Bruce Willis’ costar in Moonlighting, Cybill Shepherd, stopped doing beef plugs when she confessed to a journalist that she didn’t eat much red meat. Next the council hired the very charming Jim Garner, who positively exuded credibility on the carnivore life-style until he entered the hospital for a quadruple coronary bypass operation, when he suddenly seemed a little too credible altogether. But where was the loyalty? Mazda automobiles had no trouble sticking with Jim.

I myself prefer consuming the products of companies that stick with their spokespersons through thick and thin, sickness and health, better or worse. If you want to generate true brand loyalty, why not try exhibiting a little loyalty to your hardworking image-makers?

When Pete Rose kicks dirt on an umpire, do you think that’s going to make me buy less of a certain breakfast cereal? Heck, I might start eating the stuff for lunch too.

When David Bowie does a “coffee achievers” spot, do I care if it’s actually coffee that gives Dave all that energy? No way! I just care that the people who grow coffee are into his music. And I like the smell!

It seems to me that if the United States is going to win the economic war with Japan, we are going to have to adopt a few more of their business principles, of which loyalty is notoriously one. I say to the corporate sponsor, If your spokespeople go into drug rehab or get arrested, think of an angle to turn it to your advantage. Stand by them. Go their bail and then brag about it. But if they truly and deeply disgrace the brand name, if they really trash it seriously, then I say the spokesperson should be reminded of another old Japanese tradition, the corporate-sponsored ritual seppuku.

Aw, just kidding Mike. Have a Coke. We love you baby!

Glenn O’Brien, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, contributes a monthly column to Interview magazine, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.