He was seen by some 95 million people--an audience far larger than those who watched him racing for the goal posts in the Rose Bowl or sprinting for the car-rental counter in more than a decade of Hertz ads. If anyone in America didn't know O.J. Simpson already, his trip down a Los Angeles freeway trailed by a flotilla of police cars was hard to miss. But for Hertz Corp., the fall of one of America's best-known hucksters was a paradox as old as advertising itself: Glamorous celebrity endorsers can very suddenly become mired in scandal.
Other recent examples abound. Girl-wonder tennis champ Jennifer Capriati lost her deal with tennis-racket maker Prince Manufacturing Inc. when she was arrested on marijuana charges earlier this year. And PepsiCo Inc. couldn't moonwalk away from Michael Jackson fast enough after the entertainer was accused of molesting a young boy. Yet even as Simpson was taking his bizarre tour of Los Angeles, AT&T was signing singer Whitney Houston to an estimated $10 million TV deal--despite reports of high-decibel marital spats with her husband, rapper Bobby Brown.
Why? Advertisers see little evidence that a fall from grace--even for reasons as heinous as Simpson's arrest on double murder charges--will rub off on them. "Hertz has not been affected at all," claims Joseph M. Russo, vice-president for government and public affairs at the Park Ridge (N.J.) rent-a-car giant. "And O.J. Simpson is as highly identified with the company as he is with football."
EMERGING MARKET. In fact, sponsors seem more willing than ever to take risks on celebrities. Wilson Sporting Goods Co. forgot and forgave golfer John Daly's trouble with alcohol abuse, reupping him in June to a 10-year contract, the longest golf deal in the company's history. There's even an emerging market for celebrities who will come down off their pedestals and tell it like it is. Basketball bad boy Charles Barkley--who is as likely to bark at a fan as hit a jump shot--now commands among the highest fees of any athlete for his commercials for Nike, McDonald's, and Gillette. "The controversy and risk were appealing to us," says Bill Halladay, associate creative director at Bates USA West, which hired Barkley to do a spot for Hyundai Corp.'s Sonata family sedan.
In the end, sponsors mainly care about what works. Analysts credit Michael Jackson's four-year campaign for Pepsi with a two-point market-share boost--close to $1 billion a year in sales. And the 19-year contract between Hertz and Simpson is widely regarded as one of the most effective celebrity-company pairings ever. "If I'd have been Hertz 20 years ago, even if I could have foreseen what happened to O.J., I'd still have used him," says Halladay. In the star business these days, its seems the rewards outweigh the risks.