Earlier this month, influencer and trans woman Dylan Mulvaney promoted Bud Light beer on their social media and received nasty comments resists of the conservative public. The TikTok star, known for documenting their gender transition in daily videos for their 10.8 million followers, displayed a commemorative beer can with their face on it, sparking calls for a boycott of the brand.
Celebrity endorsement scandals are not new. In the 1980s, Pepsi paid Madonna a whopping $5 million to use Madonna’s Like A Prayer in its commercials. The commercial only ran twice before scandal was sparked by the religious imagery in Madonna’s music video, leading Pepsi to drop her as an endorser.
decades later, Tiger Woods was notoriously stripped of US$22 million in endorsement deals when his extramarital affairs came to light.
Same outrage, different reasons
While the outcry looks similar in the Woods and Mulvaney cases, it occurred for very different reasons and led to very different reactions from the companies involved.
In Woods’ case, the public objected to his transgressions and brands dropped him to protect their own reputations. In Mulvaney’s case, the criticism was aimed at them, as a member of the transgender community, and at Bud Light, for implicitly supporting trans rights with this partnership.
So how does celebrity endorsement work as a marketing strategy? Why is a specific celebrity selected by a brand and why is there sometimes outrage? And how should we look at brands using celebrities to signal higher purpose?
How celebrity endorsements work
Human memory can be seen as a network consisting of nodes connected by associative links. A celebrity and a brand are two nodes that get connected in people’s minds by appearing together in ad campaigns. This can be thought of as a mind map: when a consumer thinks of a well-known endorser, they may automatically think of the endorsed brand and vice versa.
The goal is for brands to do that “borrow” favorable associations of the personality of the celebrity. Our research showed that when a celebrity endorser is seen as crediblealso increases brand credibility.
Yet, unwanted associations with the celebrity can also spill over onto the brand. This explains why brands are quick to distance themselves from celebrities who behave badly.
In 2021, clothing designer and influencer Nadia Bartel is said to have broken Melbourne’s COVID lockdown and sniffed a white substance from a Kmart sign. Her partnerships with JSHealth and other brands were quickly ended. Despite Bartel’s transparency and apology, the risk of her negative associations transferring to these brands was too great.
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How celebrity endorsers are chosen
Usually companies look for famous personalities who are congruent with their brand image and target audience.
There may also be an aspirational element – the celebrity should fit the brand, but provide the benefit of it new, more desirable associations.
It should come as no surprise that brands have celebrities with a checkered reputation or even celebrities that endorse many different brands. Brands want an eye-catching, unsullied celebrity connection.
Celebrities endorsement in the era of brand goals
With brands under pressure to demonstrate their purpose, the nature of celebrity endorsements is evolving. Brands can communicate their values by partnering with public figures who identify as part of a historically marginalized group or who express support or opposition to a partisan issue.
Bud Light’s choice of Mulvaney as a celebrity endorser was likely for both business and social reasons – a boundary that crossing more and more brands.
Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, has said that the brand’s financial performance has been steadily declining and that reversing this trend requires new, younger customers and lags behind”fratty and out-of-touch humour”.
The backlash happened because Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, was accused of “awakening” the beer and turn it into a political statement – a statement that does not resonate with the target group. Bud Light did not cut ties with Mulvaney even when the controversy erupted.
Brands can also take a stand by choosing not to partner with certain celebrities. Kanye West – now known as Ye – was dumped by Adidas and Gapincluding after his abhorrent behavior, including wearing a White Lives Matter t-shirt and publishing anti-Semitic comments on Twitter.
This was not just an example of bad behavior. Ye’s actions were hateful and dangerous on a societal level. Adidas ended the partnership and stopped producing Yeezy branded items. While Adidas no doubt wanted to avoid being canceled by consumers, they also assumed the responsibility required for inclusive marketing and were able to shoulder the significant financial cost.
Acting authentically is paramount when brands take a stand.
Provocative and targeted celebrity endorsements
Not all celebrity scandals are the same. In the past, celebrities have made gross mistakes and brands have cut ties because it was the most profitable, least risky business decision.
With celebrity endorsement becoming part of the strategic toolbox for signaling brand purpose, more often than not, outrage will ensue. This provocation is expected and perhaps even cultivated.
A valuable question for brands like Bud Light is this provocation aside, how else can collaborating with influential celebrities lead to real change?