It may be one of the most surreal commercials anyone has seen in a long time—and not because of what it’s selling, or how. The television ad for the video game Guitar Hero features Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez, both dancing around in pink shirts, like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Where the ad once seemed inventive and fun, it now seems almost comically incorrect. Both stars are immersed in controversy. This month, photos surfaced of Phelps smoking marijuana at a college party, while Rodriguez was forced to admit to taking steroids. Amazingly, though, the troubles haven’t bothered Activision, the company that makes Guitar Hero. It has said it has no plans to dump the ad.
Scandals normally take a heavy toll on celebrity endorsements. Phelps’s drug use had many marketers predicting that the US$5 million a year he is said to earn in endorsements would disappear. But the Phelps brand has proven to be amazingly resilient. Companies like Subway and the watchmaker Omega have also decided not to toss him in the deep end. Omega called the photos a “non-issue.”
What happens to Rodriguez remains to be seen (his sins are considerably more severe than smoking marijuana). But casual drug use, at least, is no longer universally frowned upon in the marketing world. “It comes down to the nature of not so much the offence, but the nature of the culture of the company,” says Derrick Daye, Managing Partner of The Blake Project, a brand consultancy. Cereal maker Kellogg’s said it wouldn’t renew its contract with Phelps. It was, says Daye, “a statement that the people who endorse their brand are squeaky clean.” When you’re selling breakfast cereal to little kids, being associated with drugs is a very bad thing. But it’s not the worst thing in the world when you’re selling video games to college students.
At least in Phelps’s case, his backers appear to have chalked up the incident as a minor faux pas. “This is very low on the list of things you could do wrong as a celebrity, especially considering the age he’s at,” says Daye. “Wouldn’t you expect that he’d be doing something that someone would raise an eyebrow over?” It’s worth noting that Phelps has run into trouble before. In 2004, he plead guilty to drinking and driving. But eight gold medals in Beijing went a long way in erasing that from people’s minds. Daye says marketers would do well to take a long-term view. After all, who will Phelps want to do business with in the future, the companies that dumped him over a tabloid photo, or the ones that stuck with him?