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And the Oscar goes to. . .


Oscar Pistorius flanked by South African Test cricketers during an awards ceremony a week before he was charged for murder of his girlfriend on Feb 14, 2013. (Right) Tiger Woods rise to the No 1 ranking in golf has been marked by a controversial commercial by Nike

Following the murder charge against South Africa paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius in February this year, the New Yorker commented on the high-profile celebrity-sportsman when it said, "Everything moves fast with Pistorius - including the speed with which the case against him turned into a smashup of strange behaviour. " From his rise in fame since the Paralympics in 2004 to the murder of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, the twists and turns in the hearing and finally bail, things have indeed never been slow for the "fastest man on no legs". The consequential slump in his public image inevitably spared no room for dawdling action.

Pistorius has been ranked as a highly paid athlete internationally, with a large portion of his earnings coming by way of endorsements. But soon after being charged with murder of Steenkamp, brands began distancing themselves from the Olympics star.
Regardless of whether one could presume his innocence or not, the fall from grace in the eyes of the sponsors was only foreseeable. The problem is not about him losing his moral ground - not at least for the advertisers. It is about his transgression impacting their revenues.

Confirming that it had no plans of using Pistorius in his present or upcoming campaigns, a Nike spokesperson said, "We have suspended but not terminated Oscar's contract. We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely. "

After Nike, which is estimated to have been paying the athlete "hundreds of thousands of pounds" annually, brands such as BT, fashion house Thierry Mugler and eyewear maker Oakley have suspended their contracts with him. Even Ossur - the Icelandic firm that makes the prosthetic carbon fibre blades he wears - was quick to dissociate itself from Pistorius. M-Net movies, a South African pay TV channel, pulled out its TV ad campaign which read "Every night is Oscar night" out of respect and sympathy for the bereaved.

That multinationals would deeply ponder over potential future associations with Pistorius is no surprise either. Whether it was the acknowledgement of golfer Tiger Woods' marital infidelity or allegations of doping against cyclist Lance Armstrong, or even the accusations of child sexual abuse against pop star Michael Jackson, the fallouts of such contraventions have been predictably similar. In media accounts, Woods' sponsors collectively lost anywhere between $5 billion to $12 billion in the wake of the scandal, even as Gatorade, Nike, Gillette, AT&T and Accenture all pulled the plug on Woods' endorsements. Will his return to the No. 1 world rankings change things? We'll have to wait and see.

In one day, the renowned cyclist and cancer survivor Armstrong lost major endorsement deals, including one with Nike which is said to be worth millions of dollars, along with the chairmanship of the cancer charity he had found almost two decades ago. Giving up the chairmanship was his call but losing Nike's support wasn't.

Cold as it may sound, there is scarcely any deliberation by brands while dissociating themselves from these celebrities on account of their misconducts, industry experts say. In the end it boils down to minimizing collateral damage the incident might bring to the brand as advertisers laugh away the concept of "love lost between a brand and its ambassador".

For ad film maker Prahlad Kakkar, it is when celebrities behave "less than human" that brands are compelled to opt for damage control. Apart from the several monikers, Pistorius was even anointed as South Africa's "sexiest celebrity" by a magazine. But a murder charge clearly blurs all achievements, experts say.

"Brands don't expect anything extraordinary from them. Sponsors sign endorsers for their performance. Most of these brands are targeted towards children or youth. A murderer, a paedophile, a thief - these are not ordinary revelations. . . Of course the reactions are immediate, " Kakkar says.

One might call it sheer bad luck for Nike with its third international brand ambassador landing in a controversy. But the brand refuses to admit so. "Nike sponsors thousands of athletes. We evaluate any issue with our athletes on a case-by-case basis, " Nike said. This is because the concept of "strong and durable" endorsers no longer exists, believes brand expert Harish Bijoor. Only caricature icons such as Fido Dido can ensure durability, he says. "They can't go kill a chinkara (as Salman Khan is alleged to have done) nor can they get involved in scandals".

Even as athletes draw their fan following based on their performances, experts question the ethics of the sponsors too for attributing a larger-than-life image to the celebrities, causing their misgivings to blow out of proportion. After all, was it possible that Pistorius' indiscretion would have drawn less flak had he not been inundated with fame outside the track?

"The concept is most certainly flawed, " says Bijoor. "A star is a human being as well. He or she has the very same cravings as you and I have. Therefore to pit the star above these cravings and making him a superman is wrong, " he adds. Brands need to learn to peg their endorsers many notches lower, experts say. But being under the media glare 24/7 clearly requires them to be doubly cautious. With the extent of being in the limelight getting reduced over time, stars too know they can't enjoy the fame forever, says Naveen Khemka, partner, Zenith Optimedia. "I think even the stars know they will not have this fame forever, so they want to maximize their returns. Gone are the days when you could be on the top for decades".

Pushback on advert celebrating Woods

Lynn Zinser

On one hand, Nike's exuberance over Tiger Woods rising again to No. 1 in the world is understandable. The company stood by Woods through his infidelity-fuelled fall from grace - unlike dumping the likes of the cyclist Lance Armstrong and the runner Oscar Pistorius for far more serious offenses - and quietly waited for their superstar to start winning again.

Its choice of a celebratory quotation, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

"Winning takes care of everything, " is the Woods quotation that Nike chose to emblazon over a photo of Woods lining up a putt. It's a quotation Woods often uses when asked about his ranking and other such golfrelated matters.

In context, it's a perfectly acceptable thing to say. He never used it when being asked about his flotilla of reported mistresses or why his former wife Elin Nordegren might have chased him down a driveway with a golf club. But that's the kind of context it takes on when your major sponsor splashes it over your face in an advertisement with no other words or mitigating sentiments.

If anyone should know winning doesn't take care of everything, it's Nike, which has had to inch away from several famous endorsers who have proved that all too painfully. There was the hasty retreat from Armstrong as he was outed as a performance enhancing drug kingpin. Oscar Pistorius gunning down his girlfriend in his bathroom was the latest eye-popping news to make Nike blanch: it had run ad with Pistorius featuring the quotation "I am the bullet in the chamber. "

This makes the "winning takes care of everything" sentiment even more tone deaf. If anything, we should be backing away cautiously from the typical sports hero worship, not doubling down on it.

Predictably, there was instant reaction across social media, which is where Nike featured the ad. While many of the comments were merely congratulating Woods for his achievement, others took exception to the ad. "No. Winning does not take care of everything, " wrote one commenter on the Nike Golf Facebook page. "Nice message that you are sending to children. So it doesn't matter what kind of person you are, what your morals are, as long as you win? What a crock. "

Nike officials defended the advert. "Tiger has always said he competes to win, " Nike spokesman Beth Gast said in a statement. "When asked about his goals such as getting back to No. 1, he has said consistently winning is the way to get there. The statement references that sentiment and is a salute to his athletic performance. "

The problem is, the advert doesn't come with that context. And the sentiment rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

- NYT News Service

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