Association of Jonathan Toews with Chevrolet, other celebrities with the products they promote, is tenuous, some say
By Phil Rosenthal
It seems the car Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was driving was hurt more badly than the already sidelined star center after running into an elevated-track pillar on Lake Street.
The other good news is that the damaged vehicle was not the Chevy Tahoe that the team charity is raffling off next month as part of its "Chevy Drive What Kane and Toews Drove Sweepstakes," a tie-in to advertising Toews and teammate Patrick Kane have been doing since early 2009 for the Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana Chevy Dealers.
That's because the banged-up car towed from the scene was a 2009 Mercedes.
That Toews wasn't driving the make of car he plugs in a variety of platforms, as well as personal appearances such as one at this month's Chicago Auto Show, may not matter much to prospective car buyers.
In fact, according to an expert in celebrity endorsements, research suggests Toews' accident is likely to have considerably less impact on Chevy and Toews' marketing prospects than on Toews' German import and the CTA support beam he hit with it.
"I don't think there will be a problem, though some people may try to connect these two things," said Jagdish Agrawal, a marketing professor and associate dean in the College of Business and Economics at California State University at East Bay.
"When bad things happen to celebrities, if they are to be blamed — like Michael Vick had to be blamed for what he did — in that case, the company will suffer," Agrawal said. "If the celebrity isn't blameworthy — if (Toews) got into the accident and wasn't drunk or anything — then the company won't suffer."
Efforts to get a response to the incident from representatives of the local Chevy dealers group for this column were unsuccessful. But a Blackhawks spokesman said "the unfortunate event … in no way has soured Jonathan's relationship with Chevy, nor has it changed the current sweepstakes."
The team said the Tahoe that's being given away was driven last year by Toews, who had been sidelined by an injury before the accident, while he has been "proudly driving a Chevy Avalanche" this year — Thursday's drive to the United Center apparently notwithstanding.
Celebrity endorsements are often less about well-known people lending their credibility to a product or company than simply helping marketers get your attention for what's being advertised, especially when the endorser is known for something peripheral to what's being sold.
"What matters in a lot of cases, when there are so many brands, is people remember the brand name," Agrawal said. "Celebrities help people remember the name. There are always people who don't believe in these things, but it's a cost-to-benefit situation. As long as there are enough people who believe in celebrities, you will keep seeing it and you continue to do so."
Marketers right now are sizing up New York Knicks pro basketball phenom Jeremy Lin. He's so new on the scene that few people know him well, which enabled them to project their values and beliefs on him.
The Sports Business Daily reports that Marketing Arm research ranks Lin's endorsement potential on par with that of actor George Clooney and investor Warren Buffett. From an aspirational standpoint, Lin's apparently in a league with baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and actor Denzel Washington. And his public awareness is about at the level of the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher.
That kind of regard can grow the more the public gets to know someone. Or shrink.
It's not yet clear how celebrity chef Paula Deen's credibility and standing with the public will be affected by her decision to conceal that she had diabetes for years until she came out recently promoting a drug for the condition. Critics have slammed Deen's buttery, sugar-laced recipes and lucrative deals to endorse products such as Smithfield ham as hypocritical.
Even before Tiger Woods' private life became public in late 2009, shattering the carefully crafted image he and his corporate partners enjoyed, sending sponsors scurrying, General Motors had ended its Buick ad deal with the golfer after nine years.
Former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, before leaving the carmaker in 2010, said Woods "did little to help sell cars" over that span, although he conceded that "maybe we didn't have him say the right things at the time."
Still, through the end of 2009, even after Woods was no longer a public face of Buick, he had a contractual arrangement for the free use of GM cars — including a Buick Enclave and the Cadillac Escalade he tried to drive away from his Florida home the night in November when everything changed for him.
"If I'm getting Tiger Woods and 10 very big (executives) can play golf with him, that's a big benefit," said Agrawal, who recently completed a paper on the impact of Woods' travails on his endorsement business. "It doesn't have to be advertising. (Celebrities) can help them in a lot of ways."
Actress Cybill Shepherd did ads for the beef industry only to be quoted in a fashion magazine on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, further alienating ranchers who weren't entirely sold on her to start with. But a big star can overcome almost anything.
Young Macaulay Culkin had a big deal to promote Sprite with the release of "Home Alone 2." "I'm not that crazy about the stuff," Culkin, not yet 12 at the time, said before the arrangement was finalized. "But money is money."
If anyone disagreed, including the client, it hardly derailed the campaign or its effectiveness.
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