If, in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal, you were wondering about the status of his endorsement deal with TAG Heuer, you need only check the company’s Web site for the answer. As this is written, the TAG Heuer home page features a statement from brand CEO Jean-Christophe Babin that “The partnership with Tiger Woods will continue,” while acknowledging that the use of his image in certain markets will be downscaled, “depending upon his decision about returning to professional golf.”
Whatever your view on TigerGate, you have to admire the company’s commitment to its deal with Woods even as new details of his troubles emerge (although one might assume that marketing execs at Rolex, the watch giant that had Woods under contract before losing him to their competitors at TAG, might be breathing a sigh of relief right about now).
Of course Tiger is not the first celebrity watch endorser to encounter scandal and/or controversy. Considering some of the misadventures of other such high-profile figures, and the lack of long-term impact they have had on these stars’ careers and marketability, TAG Heuer’s decision to ride out the Woods tsunami seems to make sense.
TAG had, in fact, hitched its marketing wagon to an even more scandal-prone sports figure several years ago. Track-and-field athlete Marion Jones became known as “the fastest woman alive” after her impressive performance in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, taking home five gold medals. Jones became a media darling and a centerpiece of TAG’s “What are you made of?” sports-watch advertising campaign. It all fell apart in 2007, when Jones admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs before the games and lying about it to two grand juries investigating the infamous BALCO case that involved baseball player Barry Bonds and several other prominent athletes. Jones took the worst hit of them all: she forfeited all of her medals and served a six-month jail term. She’s no longer a TAG Heuer ambassador, but is pondering a return to professional athletics as a hoopster in the WNBA.
Speaking of the Olympics, who can forget champion swimmer and high-profile Omega endorser Michael Phelps, and his historic eight-gold-medal performance at the 2008 Beijing games? Or, for that matter, the infamous video of Phelps doing bong hits at a party less than a year later? The 23-year-old phenom released a statement apologizing for his “youthful and inappropriate” behavior and the whole mess, predictably, blew over rather quickly. The tarnishing of Phelps’s squeaky-clean image lost him his endorsement deal with Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes breakfast cereal, but Omega apparently never even got cold feet about continuing their relationship.
Then there is Emmy-winning actor Kiefer Sutherland, star of “24” and frequent presence in Baume & Mercier ads. Sutherland, a notorious Hollywood hell-raiser since his early days in films like The Lost Boys and Stand by Me, was busted for DUI in September 2007 — while on probation for a previous offense — and served a 48-day jail sentence. L.A. being L.A., however, Sutherland’s stretch behind bars was tailored to minimize disruption to the filming of his hit TV show “24”. The show’s high ratings continue and Sutherland is still doing endorsements, though his B&M campaign has concluded.
Another Baume & Mercier spokesman, actor David Duchovny, became a late-night punch line when he entered rehab for an addiction to Internet porn, a life-imitating-art twist straight from the Triple-X-files of the sex-obsessed character he currently plays on the Showtime series, “Californication.” Both Duchovny’s marriage and career appear relatively unscathed by the scandal: his wife, actress Téa Leoni, has stood by him, and B&M signed him for a major campaign in 2009.
Even a golden boy can sometimes stumble onto some bad press. Movado scored a coup when it signed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, he of the three Super Bowl rings and matinee-idol looks, to be the face of its 800 Series Chronograph; it even released a special Tom Brady limited edition of that watch. But Brady disappointed many of his fans when he broke up with his girlfriend of three years, actress Bridget Moynahan, shortly after getting her pregnant. After dating and eventually marrying supermodel Gisele Bündchen (coincidentally, a celebrity endorser for Ebel, another watch brand in the Movado Group) and leading his team to an undefeated regular season and Super Bowl appearance in the 2007-2008 season, the star QB’s caddish behavior was mostly forgiven. Today, Brady’s Pats are gunning for another championship, and Movado is still in his corner.
A new luxury watch brand called Nubeo has created an entire watch line, called Black Mamba, to capitalize on the fame of NBA star Kobe Bryant. Leading the Los Angeles Lakers to another title this year has largely erased the public’s memory of Bryant’s escapades of 2003, when the married star was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel room. The sexual assault charge was dismissed but Bryant was publicly shamed for his admitted adultery. It remains to be seen how personally involved Bryant will be in the marketing of Nubeo’s watches and how much of an audience they will find.
The jury is also still out on the endorsement fate of actor Nicolas Cage, still appearing in ads for Montblanc. It has recently been reported that Cage, who had accumulated a fortune in his long career, is now essentially broke, owing millions to the IRS for unpaid taxes and suing his business manager to the tune of $20 million.
It stands to reason that luxury watch companies, who target their wares to a decidedly adult, sophisticated clientele, would be more forgiving about their celebrity ambassadors’ brushes with scandal than a brand that caters to kids, teenagers or a more general audience. And yet, sometimes one of them will pull the plug on a celebrity contract for reasons that are less about public image and more about the bottom line. Case in point: actress Sharon Stone, spokesperson for Christian Dior’s Christal watch, who made a somewhat ill-advised statement about the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China that killed more than 68,000 people. Citing China’s treatment of Tibet, Stone asked facetiously, “Is that karma…when you are not nice that bad things happen to you?” The suggestion that the victims may have had it coming was enough to infuriate the Chinese media and to convince Dior, with hopes of expanding its brand further into the huge and growing Chinese market for luxury goods, to remove the outspoken star’s image from all of its marketing there.
So what is the moral of the story here? Perhaps it is this: When it comes to endorsing a luxury brand, you may cheat on your spouse, drive drunk, smoke weed, and dodge taxes — but you may never break the all-important commandment: Thou shalt not jeopardize sales in emerging markets.