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How Do Companies Deal With an Unwanted Celebrity Endorsement?

The makers of MyPillow are thrilled with Trump’s seal of approval, but there are surely plenty of others who wouldn’t be

Trump loves MyPillow. The recent Trump exposé book A Warning describes him as commenting repeatedly on the Fox News-frequenting infomercial, saying, “This guy, have you seen him? ‘MyPillow.’ He’s unbelievable. He buys all the airtime on TV. It’s terrific. And he’s a big, big Trump supporter.” Now, Trump probably doesn’t use MyPillow — even at $70 a pop, MyPillow doesn’t quite rise to Trump’s level of decadence. He probably uses gold-plated pillows with a 2 million thread count stuffed with baby bald eagle feathers. But still, he loves MyPillow, and for a fairly obvious reason: the MyPillow guy really loves Trump.

Clearly, then, the MyPillow guy isn’t trying to disassociate himself from Trump’s ringing endorsement — he even spoke at CPAC, saying that Trump “is the greatest president in history. Of course he is, he was chosen by God.” But what would a company do if they for some reason didn’t want the approval of a racist bullshit artist, like all those Manhattan buildings that have removed his name from their facades? What does any company do when a public figure they’d rather not be associated with decides to give them a big ol’ high-profile thumbs up?

“If a company that was one of my clients wanted to distance themselves from a celebrity endorsement, I’d advise them to immediately say, ‘Just to be clear, this person isn’t an official spokesperson and has no official role in any way, shape or form with our company. But we wish him well.’ Which is basically a nice way of saying, ‘Stop using our name,’” explains Mike Paul, a PR expert known as The Reputation Doctor. Paul goes on to say that they’d issue a press release, but that the days of a press conference for this kind of thing are long gone. Instead, they’d use social media and engage the public, not only posting their feelings about the situation, but also replying to the public and making themselves accessible. 

Paul adds that the company may go even further and point out who is their official spokesperson, maybe even bringing in that spokesperson to help with some on-brand messaging. Basically, they’d want to act quickly to nip this problem in the bud and hope that the celebrity gets the message that no one wants their endorsement. This is basically what the TIKI torches company did when all those racist morons in Charlottesville were marching around brandishing their product. When Heather Heyer was run down and killed by one of those assholes on August 12, 2017, TIKI took to their Facebook page the same day to state, “TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way.”

Paul stresses that speed is key to dealing with this kind of thing, especially if an incident has occurred that’s associated with a product, as with Charlottesville and TIKI. “Riding something out” is no longer an option — companies now have to engage the public and answer their questions. That said, there are some rare instances where they might do nothing or say nothing at all, and that might be exactly the right move. For example, for years, Insane Clown Posse have raved about Faygo soda, and as The New York Times explains, “This has resulted in one of the longest-running instances of an unsolicited celebrity endorsement.” In this case, Faygo — who prefer a family-friendly image — have said little about the rap group beyond, “we wish them the best.”

A similar situation arose with Olive Garden around 2008, when the company began to receive unsolicited endorsements from Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson. Nothing negative was being said about the brand, but they also didn’t want themselves to be officially endorsed by a centerfold, so they simply kept quiet on the issue. One spokesperson even told the Journal, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this… because it is a complicated issue for the brand.”

Far trickier than these examples are cases where a company has to disassociate themselves from an official spokesperson, as Aflac did with Gilbert Gottfried following his tweets about the 2011 tsunami. Paul explains that situations like this can get far more dicey and that a good deal more work is needed from the company. Simply saying, “We don’t support this guy” isn’t enough, because those companies have supported them and need to act swiftly if a scandal erupts.

“The first thing they’d probably do is fire the spokesperson, which wouldn’t be a problem because most of those contracts have a morality clause, which says that ‘if we feel there’s something that you’ve done or said that isn’t in the best interest for our reputation, we can release you from this contract,’” Paul explains. But firing is just the first step — after this, the company would have to assess how bad the damage is, and quickly, which is often done by hiring a guy like Paul. “Some people think they can handle this kind of thing internally, but these things get complicated. I often say to my clients, ‘Why didn’t you call me a year ago?’” Paul says. 

Even for this kind of situation, though, press conferences aren’t really used anymore. Instead, a company that has to disown a spokesperson would likely issue a press release and take to social media right away. “They’d have to offer what I consider a true, authentic apology and it better pull at my heartstrings, because they want to use emotion to change my heart!” Paul warns. “To do that, that company has to own it. It’s not good enough for a company to say, ‘It was all him!” That doesn’t win my trust back, and trust is the ultimate currency they’re seeking to regain. Trust is even bigger than money.”

Instead of blaming the spokesperson, Paul says that a company would have to say something like, “We trusted him, he had some issues. We let him go. We had the right to let him go, but we are sorry for what we did.” They might also announce what they’re doing to be sure it doesn’t happen again, including a better look into a person’s history next time, or anything else that can be done to prevent this in the future. They might even opt to help the spokesperson if it’s in their best interest to do so. While Subway obviously wasn’t going to support Jared after his arrest for pedophilia, a company might send a drug-addicted spokesperson to rehab, if they felt it would help their image to do so.

Paul also says that he would drill the company leadership and spokespeople with mock questions so that they could handle the pressure from the public, or a member of the press looking to make a headline. Paul explains that he’d want to make sure a consistent, conciliatory message is sent by everyone, adding that he’d probably advise the company to get a new — and very safe — spokesperson for future endorsements. The biggest thing, though, is to remain engaged with the public, Paul says, as hiding will never help.

Of course, none of this applies to this situation, because the MyPillow guy — who’s name is Michael Lindel, by the way — loves Trump and Trump loves MyPillow. And despite all of the horrible shit Trump has said and done and the scuttlebutt about his impeachment since practically day one, the MyPillow brand has only continued to grow. Perhaps someone can just smother me with a MyPillow so I can leave this ass-backwards universe behind me.