Dior found itself in a significantly problematic position in the summer of 2016. Johnny Depp was the face of Sauvage, its newest men’s fragrance, at the time. The world-famous actor was gracing television screens in a commercial for the cologne, appearing on billboards across the global, and finding a home in magazines and on Instagram timelines, alike. All the while, Depp was making headlines for different reasons, as well, after his then-wife, Amber Heard, came forward with domestic abuse allegations against him, thereby, putting him at the center of a personal controversy that stood to tarnish the delicate image of the brand he was endorsing.
After all, the Depp drama came just barely five years after the Paris-based brand faced widespread backlash after its then-creative director John Galliano was caught on tape at La Perle bar in the Marais district of Paris, drunk and making anti-Semitic rants directed at fellow patrons to the tune of, “I love Hitler” and “Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be gassed and dead.”
Galliano, who had been at the helm of the couture house since 1996, was ousted and his relations with Dior and its parent LVMH would be documented in legal proceedings that would stretch on for years to come. At least one of the brand’s endorsers, Natalie Portman, the Oscar winning actress who was signed to promote a Dior perfume at the time, made headlines around the same time. She issued a strongly-worded statement detailing how she was “deeply shocked and disgusted” by the video. “As an individual who is proud to be Jewish,” she said, “I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way.”
The entire episode shone an inherently unflattering light on one of fashion’s most esteemed design houses.
Now, fast forward a year and a half. Decades of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein and his cohorts have come to light and resulted in a culture that very vocally longs for transparency in the workplace and a push for an end to the abuses that both men and women – but mostly women – experience while on the clock and off.
Add to this the following … “Brands Beware: Logan Paul (Or Someone Like Him) Can Cause Real Damage.” This was the headline attached to a recent article put forth by advertising-focused site, AdAge. According to the site’s writer Garrett Sloane, “Another YouTube celebrity is facing an internet storm over a tasteless video, and brands are once again wondering how to avoid influencer disasters like the one wrought by Logan Paul.”
And brands are right to worry.
More Followers, More Risk
Paul – who rose to fame thanks to his significant following on Vine and more recently, on YouTube – serves as a hugely influential force for the 16 million pre-teens that worship him (and follow him religiously on YouTube and Instagram). As such, the 22-year old is also a significant asset for brands looking to market to this demographic, so much so that he pocketed a reported $12.5 million in 2017 from advertising spots and merchandise sales, other sources of revenue, according to Forbes.
However, more striking than his multi-million dollar income is what he posted to YouTube on December 31. The video, which Paul has since been removed from his page (but not before it garner more than six million views, tens of thousands of likes, and countless screenshots), followed from his recent trip to Japan. The controversy stems from its depiction of a dead body hanging from a tree in the Aokigahara forest, which is known as Japan’s “suicide forest,” due to the high number of suicides that take place each year within the confines of the wooded area near Mt. Fuji.
As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson summed up the contents of the video, “Paul showed the body, with [the man’s] face blurred out, and filmed his own reaction, at first stunned, and then . . . well, one might say, amused.”
“This definitely marks a moment in YouTube history,” Paul said into the camera.
The response to the video was swift and scathing. “By New Year’s Day,” writes Lawson, “criticism of Paul was widespread and he issued the first of two apologies.” The backlash came from all angles: From his fans, from the media, and from Hollywood, as well.
Paul’s video comes on the heels of one posted last year by Felix Kjellberg, the Swedish vlogger better known as PewDiePie, who boasts a following of over 59 million. He came under fire and was axed from his own YouTube Red series after the Wall Street Journal reported on videos that he posted, which contained racist language and anti-Semitic imagery. In the wake of the WSJ report, YouTube also removed Kjellberg from Google Preferred, a service that connects YouTube’s most popular stars with advertisers, thereby enabling them to monetize their videos.
A Legal Conundrum
Unsurprisingly, brands are rethinking their marketing strategies when it comes to big-name individuals and influencers – including Instagram stars and video bloggers, among others – in light of such continued scandal. Companies take on quite a significant amount of risk when contracting with social media figures, in much the same way as they do when they enlist Hollywood stars, professional athletes, big name fashion designers, and others celebrities to endorse their products. This is the case, as these famous individuals and their behavior – whether in a professional capacity or in their often paparazzi-plagued or social media-documented personal lives – serves as a reflection of the brand.
While most scandal-enducing behavior has, in the past, proven most frequent outside of the confines of a workplace, the rise in sexual harassment allegations in recent months serves to suggest that such problematic behavior does, in fact, creep into the workplaces of some of the world’s most renowned institutions.
“There is no reason for brands to take risks like this,” Harvey Schwartz, president of talent at WHOSAY, an influencer marketing company, told AdAge, in speaking about influencers. Schwartz has taken to telling advertisers to avoid the likes of Logan Paul.
In instances like this one, it may be as simple as swearing off advertising on specific YouTube channels or no longer allocating ad spend for Paul to endorse your brand on his Instagram page, but what about those brands that are already in bed – contractually – with an influencer or other famous figure (as noted above, such reputation-tarnishing behavior is not limited merely to influencers), and/or are not ready to swear them off entirely just yet?
Well, in order to protect themselves and their carefully crafted identities, brands – or at least smart brands – routinely include explicit morals clauses in their ambassadors’, endorsers’, designers’ and other celebrities’ contracts.
Morals clauses are typically worded in such a way as to allow a brand – such as Dior in regards to Depp or Galliano, or Nike, for instance, when its endorsed athlete Manny Paquiao publicly made disparaging comments about gay couples – to immediately terminate a contract, without any penalty, should the individual act in a certain manner that would tarnish the reputation of the brand.
Such contracts also tend to enable the brand at issue to seek any number of potential remedies for its star’s violation, including but not limited to: the termination of the agreement; suspension the agreement for a period of time; imposition of a financial penalty for the behavior at issue without terminating the contract; or the payment of damages by the famous figure for breaching the agreement.
It is unclear what, exactly, will happen with Paul; as of now, YouTube has not yet given him the axe from its Red series or its Google Preferred service. It does seem obvious, however, that Dunkin Donuts, Hanes, the Truth Campaign, Bic, and the many other companies that have tapped him to advertise on their behalves in the past, will think twice about enlisting him and if they do, will work to carefully craft the terms of their agreement.
The same can be said for any prudent brand that has signed or is looking to sign a famous face – of any kind – to their brand, whether it be in the form of an endorser, an editor, an influencer, or even a creative director.