Under the Influence

The day a beer brand found out its celebrity spokesperson was in rehab

In the world of advertising, landing a celebrity is a big deal. But celebrities attract a lot of attention. And so do their mishaps.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Spokesperson Disasters

In the world of advertising, landing a celebrity is a big deal. Some research suggests people are willing to pay 20 per cent more for a product endorsed by a celebrity. It's also a very expensive advertising strategy as celebrities don't come cheap. That's why everything has to go just right when creating a spokesperson advertising campaign. Because celebrities attract a lot of attention. And so do their mishaps.

Microsoft Mixup

In 2012, Oprah Winfrey listed the new Microsoft Surface tablet as one of her "Favourite Things" and it got a lot of attention.

Oprah Winfrey included the Microsoft Surface in her 2012 "Favourite Things" list. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Oprah tweeted about it saying: "Gotta love that Surface! Have bought 12 already for Christmas gifts. #FavouriteThings"

That was a powerful endorsement, except for one small thing: At the top of Oprah's tweet, it said: "via Twitter for iPad."
In other words, Oprah had tweeted about the Microsoft tablet from her Apple iPad.

It didn't take long for the Twitterverse to notice that little snafu.

While some thought it made Oprah look like a sell-out, others came to her defence saying there weren't many Microsoft Twitter apps available at the time. Either way, it showed just how easily a celebrity endorsement can go off the rails.

Lame Duck

For over a decade, Gilbert Gottfried played his most famous role: The Aflac duck.

Since the millennium, the comedian voiced the familiar duck that frustratingly quacks at people who can't remember the name of the supplemental insurance provider called the American Family Life Assurance Company. Or Aflac for short.

It was a happy relationship - until March of 2011, when a 40m tsunami struck the pacific coast of Japan, killing over 15,000 people. As many celebrities did, Gottfried took to Twitter. But he wasn't expressing his sympathies for the country. Instead, he was tweeting jokes.

Gilbert Gottfried was the Aflac spokesduck for a decade. (The Associated Press)
Gottfried posted several jokes that made light of the tragedy. Including: "Japan is very advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them."

The tweets sparked an instant media outrage. And within just one hour of hitting the "send" button, the spokesduck was fired. As it turns out, three quarters of Aflac's business was conducted in Japan.

Gottfried deleted the tweets and issued an apology, but Aflac stood by their decision. It also put out an immediate nationwide casting call to replace Gottfried as the Aflac duck.

Pre-duck, Aflac had 11 per cent brand awareness. Post duck, Aflac brand awareness rose to 95 per cent and it had spent over $80M media dollars per year to support their quacker. Suffice it to say, the duck was a valuable part of their branding.

The duck had amassed over 230,000 Facebook "likes" – double the likes of the Aflac brand itself. And it was on the duck's page that the brand announced the job opening. Interested parties were asked to submit a 30-second audio file showcasing their best Aflac quack to "QuackAflac.com."

It was smart marketing. Nearly 30,000 people viewed the job description. Aflac poured through nearly 13,000 applications from the general public.

The search itself garnered over 70,000 media stories. Web and social media traffic soared. And the job search campaign even won Aflac a coveted Cannes Lion advertising award. After a month-long search, Aflac plucked their new duck out of obscurity: 36-year-old Dan McKeague - a radio station sales manager from small town, Minnesota:

With their new spokesduck, the company's web traffic grew by 20 per cent, Twitter followers increased by nearly 15 per cent and direct sales leads jumped by 80 per cent.

Aflac had taken a lame duck story… and turned it into a duck dynasty.

Beer Blunder

Eric Clapton became the spokesperson for Michelob beer in 1987. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1979, Anheuser-Busch sold over 7 million barrels of Michelob beer. But by the late '80s, that number dropped by 35 per cent. Beer drinkers had begun favouring imported brands and Michelob was being left in the dust.

So in 1987, Michelob decided to change its image. It needed to woo back its 1980's customers and attract a brand new set of 20-something drinkers.

It needed to become cool again. And what's cooler...than rock and roll.

To launch their campaign, Michelob brought in the big guns - tapping some of the biggest names in the music industry - including Phil Collins, Roger Daltrey, Steve Winwood - and Eric Clapton.

The theme was: "The Night Belongs to Michelob." The supergroup starred in a series of 60-second ads that placed Michelob in the nightlife scene. Many of the rockers traded the use of their songs in exchange for tour sponsorship.

Clapton's ad showed the singer leaving his concert and crossing the street to play at a dark, hazy bar. All set to a slowed down version of his 1973 hit: "After Midnight":

The campaign was a hit – boosting Michelob sales for the first time in nearly a decade. But the celebration didn't last long. Shortly after the campaign launched, it came out that Eric Clapton was in rehab. In late 1987, the singer/songwriter had entered a treatment facility in Minnesota for alcoholism. A crushing blow to the campaign.

At the time, the alcohol industry was already under scrutiny for sponsoring concert tours, with many accusing the industry of contributing to the underage drinking problem. Having an alcoholic musician-spokesperson for a beer brand didn't help.

Clapton said he found himself in rehab sitting in a room full of recovering alcoholics when the first ad aired on TV. Someone said: "Is that you?" To which he replied: "Yup."

Anheuser-Busch terminated Clapton's contract immediately.

Some of Clapton's fellow rockers didn't approve of his association with Michelob in the first place - many becoming vocal about their distaste of Clapton "selling out." Tom Petty said: "How is someone supposed to take your next work seriously when your last one was a beer commercial?"

Well, as it happens, Clapton's next work won a Grammy. Michelob sales, however, resumed their decline.

Proving that, sometimes, a scandal hurts the brand more than the celebrity.

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(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)

Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.
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