– T.L. Stanley
Rapper and actor T.I. enjoyed the spoils of the thug life, but it ended up costing him his freedom and, by his own estimate, $12 million in a lost General Motors endorsement deal and other work when he was convicted of federal weapons charges.
But the artist, who’s now emerged from prison and has a new record coming out, could be back in the brand partnership game soon. His label, Warner Music Group‘s Atlantic Records, is in active discussion with a number of marketers eager to latch onto his turnaround tale, partly chronicled in an MTV reality series. “Sometimes, you could be just a couple of hits away from redemption,” says Camille Hackney, Atlantic’s svp brand partnerships and commercial licensing. “Success makes people forget.”
Could it be true that the lure of celebrities, even tarnished ones, outweighs the risk of getting involved with them? At a time when former pitchman extraordinaire Tiger Woods tries to pick up the pieces of his personal and professional life, shouldn’t corporate America run screaming in the opposite direction? Away from the red carpet, that is, and toward something a lot safer than a movie star, singer or pro athlete whose every move and misstep could be fodder for TMZ?
Not quite. True, Woods’ spectacular tumble prompted the loss of lucrative deals with Accenture, AT&T and PepsiCo‘s Gatorade while other sponsors, Gillette and Tag Heuer, have distanced themselves in the wake of his extramarital affairs and subsequent hiatus from golf. But Nike and Electronic Arts have stood by Woods, illustrating the continuing appeal of A-list stars, even ones with compromised public images.
In fact, if anything, the use of celeb endorsers seems to be making a comeback. At high-profile advertising events like the Super Bowl, celebrities and popular music appeared in 40 percent of the commercials, according to GreenLight, a licensing, talent and rights consultancy. Celebrity ads spiked 150 percent during the Grammy Awards this year compared to last, GreenLight found.
New deals have also rolled out recently. McDonald’s inked a multiyear partnership with basketball star LeBron James that featured a commercial in the Super Bowl pregame and will fan out to more ads, personal appearances and myriad other activities. BlackBerry is in the thick of a global sponsorship of the Black Eyed Peas tour, and Olympian Michael Phelps is starring in new Subway commercials, despite the now-infamous bong photo that last year nixed his Kellogg’s cereal endorsement. Atlantic’s Hackney married Grammy-nominated singer Janelle Monae and up-and-coming artists with Coca-Cola‘s Happiness Factory campaign this spring after previously brokering deals between Estelle and Crystal Light and Kid Rock and Jim Beam.
Why? Industry experts say the draw of big names is stronger than ever, partially because many stars have used social media outlets like Twitter to establish one-to-one connections with consumers. Plus, there’s still no substitute for a famous face. “As a brand or product, you have about three seconds to grab my attention with your marketing, and nothing helps you do that like a celebrity,” says GreenLight vp David Reeder. “Marketers haven’t found anything that’s able to elevate the presence of their brands like celebrities. If they had, they would’ve gone there.”
That’s not to say that the Tiger Woods incident has had zero repercussions. There’s a “hangover effect” from the media firestorm around Woods, says Reeder, that’s causing some changes in how marketers approach these arrangements. “It used to be, ‘Here’s a wheelbarrow of cash because you’re so fabulous,’ and there was no expectation of good behavior,” he says. “Celebrities were in the position of strength, and the recourse you had as a brand was so watered down.”