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When brand ambassadors backfire in spectacular fashion

The modern-day obsession with brand ambassadors make sense – they help sell products. But what happens when things don’t go according to plan?
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Helen Mirren is British acting royalty having won one, and been nominated for four, Academy Awards. However, her role as a brand ambassador for L’Oreal is surely in doubt after she suggested the company’s moisturiser “probably does fuck-all”.

These damaging words were uttered, of all places, during a L’Oreal panel in Cannes, when she said: “I’m an eternal optimist. I know that when I put my moisturiser on it probably does fuck-all, but it just makes me feel better.”

Mirren, signed up as the face of L’Oreal’s “Age Perfect” moisturiser range in 2014, has never been someone to shy away from being open and candid – she doesn’t mince her words.

During an appearance on the Graham Norton Show in 2016, Mirren was asked to provide a Christmas message to the British public. In front of millions of TV viewers, she said: “Hello, at this time of celebration and togetherness we have the chance to reflect on the year gone by.

“And I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a bit pile of shit.”

When it comes to selecting brand ambassadors, which can produce incredible results through social media, going for someone who is outspoken comes with its positives and negatives. Extrovert characters get themselves in the news, and by virtue of that promote the products they are paid to do. But, as Mirren shows, candidness can be damaging.

To shed some more light on the topic, Real Business has found some other examples of when brand ambassadors have done more damage than good.

Kendall Jenner and Pepsi

Kendall Jenner PepsiAs one of the members of the all too famous Kardashian/Jenner clan, which shot to fame after a reality TV chronicled their glamorous lifestyles, Kendall Jenner has a popular culture and social media following Pepsi saw as too good to not take advantage of.

However, in an advert that first aired in April 2017, the US television personality and famous drinks brand were roundly lambasted for producing an advert that appeared to be insensitive towards the Black Lives Matter movement and imply a simple can of Pepsi could calm the tension that builds during march demonstrations.

Employing a brand ambassador like Kendall Jenner made Pepsi an easy target for complaints, perhaps more so than if the role in the advert had been played by an unknown. Jenner was criticised on the very platforms that had catapulted her to fame, social media, and the advert was pulled before more damage was done.

A comment from Pepsi read: “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

Gary Lineker and Walkers

Gary Lineker Jimmy SavilleIt’s had to imagine life before former footballer, and now famous presenter, Gary Lineker became the face of Walkers.

Lineker was ideally placed, as far as brand ambassadors go, to promote Walkers having been born and brought up in Leicester – the very city that serves as headquarters for the confectionary brand.

Numerous TV spots featuring Lineker had been produced over the years, but it was when a new social media campaign was unleashed that problems started.

After Walkers encouraged Twitter users to send in selfies, which would then be held up by Lineker in a short video, a large number used the obvious lack of scrutiny the images were going through to place some rather unfortunate faces next to the ex-footballer.

Over the series of one morning, the likes of murderous pair Fred West and Harold Shipman were “held up” by Lineker on Twitter – alongside others including Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Adam Johnson.

Walkers quickly pulled the campaign and apologised, saying: “We recognise people were offended by irresponsible and offensive posts by individuals, and we apologise.”

Nicole Kidman and Etihad Airways

Nicole Kidman for Eithad Airways - Mar 2015This was one example of where the blow back was directed more towards the brand ambassador than the actual business.

Problems began after many pointed out that Kidman’s role as a United Nations women’s goodwill ambassador was at odds with endorsing flights for a company that had reportedly mistreated female employees.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (Apfa) led the change and suggested Kidman distanced herself from a company which apparently “may fire women if they become pregnant” and forces flight attendants to live in “confinement” in secure compounds.

However, unlike previous examples we’ve cited, Kidman did not seem to mind the accusations, and was still endorsing Etihad Airways services a year later she became the first Hollywood actress to star in a fully immersive virtual reality film for the brand.

Tiger Woods and lots of brands

Tiger Woods GatoradePerhaps one of the most well-known examples of a sports star going into meltdown, and having to deal with the financial fall out of that, took place in 2009. At the peak of Tiger Woods’ power, when he was winning multiple golfing majors and capitalising on all the economic upside that comes with that success, his personal life employed.

When stories surrounding extramarital affairs began circulating, the issue was compounded by a late-night issue at Woods’ Florida home when he drove into a fire hydrant, tree and hedges on his road.

As the situation escalated, and numerous women made public the reported affairs he’d had with them, the businesses Woods had been a well-paid brand ambassador for began dropping like flies.

To start with, Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors cut ties. Soon after, TAG Heuer decided to end its relationship with Woods.

Over the course of the next four years, it was predicted by Forbes that Woods lost a total of $50m in endorsements.

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About Author

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Real Business. He is also the editor of Business Advice, a title focused solely on a section of the business community currently underserved – micro companies. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative.

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