Celebrity partnerships are riskier than ever

Between the horrorfest at Astroworld and State Farm’s decision to stand by Aaron Rodgers, celebrity endorsements are becoming dicey as brands preach purpose.

There’s always a risk when aligning your brand with a personality, whether it’s someone as famous as Kim Kardashian or a micro influencer with a couple thousand followers.

That risk has always been there. It’s not a new phenomenon because of the internet or social media. Case in point: O.J. Simpson repped Hertz for decades before the car brand ceased the partnership in 1994 because … well, you know that story. 

But it seems to me that in our polarized, chaotic, hyper-connected world, in which brands are preaching purpose, advertisers must tread more lightly than ever when exploring celebrity or influencer endorsements, no matter the size of that person’s following. 

When a crowd surge stampeded the stage during a Travis Scott performance at Astroworld Festival in Houston on Saturday, leaving eight dead and hundreds injured, it was first and foremost, a tragedy. It also, I’m sure, set panic alarms off at companies such as McDonald’s, Nike, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, Sony and Epic Games, which have partnered with Scott on high-profile collaborations that link their brands to the rapper’s persona.

No word yet on whether these brands will drop their endorsements of Scott, who is being hit with a stack of lawsuits and has agreed to pay for the funerals of the eight victims. 

So far, Just Epic Games-owned Fortnite, which hosted a virtual concert with Scott that drew in 12.3 million viewers, has removed the ability for avatars to do his signature dance move in the game. In a non-answer to a direct question about its relationship with Scott, Anheuser-Busch told Campaign US reporter Sabrina Sanchez: “We are saddened to learn of the tragic events that occurred at the Astroworld Festival, and our hearts are with all those who were impacted.” How about that JV for Scott’s Cactus spiked seltzer, though?

Then there’s the State Farm and Aaron Rodgers controversy, a different but still gravely serious example of why it’s so important for brands to carefully vet their celebrity partnerships, and, ironically, why it’s impossible to really do that now that everyone has a megaphone in their pocket.

State Farm was thrust into the fiery center of the culture wars when Rodgers, a company spokesperson, tested positive for COVID-19 and publicly questioned the NFL’s safety protocols and policies, as well as the effectiveness of vaccines. 

State Farm ultimately stood by Rodgers, claiming that the brand “encourage[s] vaccinations, but respect[s] everyone’s right to make a choice based on their personal circumstances.” But not before reducing the number of times Rodgers appeared in State Farm TV ads to 1.5% of ads aired on Sunday, down from 20% of ads aired the two prior Sundays. 

These mushy, middle-of-the road, contradictory stances present a conundrum for brands, which are beating the purpose drum louder than ever these days. By intentionally trying not to seem like they support either side of the argument, brands run the risk of angering consumers on both sides. By saying the wrong thing, they risk alienating one side for good. It’s a lose-lose situation. 

But in a world where consumers can fact-check your brand manifesto and claims of corporate citizenship with every tweet, Instagram post or celebrity endorsement you’ve ever made, inaction isn’t the answer. 

The Travis Scott and Aaron Rodgers controversies are two high-profile and rather horrifying examples of how brand endorsements can take a turn for the worst. But poor alignment happens all the time, whether it's between a multimillion dollar brand and a big celebrity, or a small influencer endorsement.

Leaning into star power and community influence are tried-and-true marketing tactics. But for brands trying to walk a fine line between purpose and profit, the tolerance for risk must be higher, and the contingency plans tighter, for celebrity associations in a chaotic and polarized world.

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