Friday, October 5, 2012

Brand Backlash: When Product Pitchpeople Endorse Politicians

Most Americans will recognize Mike Rowe as the genial, joke-cracking host of the Discovery Channel’s hit show Dirty Jobs, where he’s shown joining blue-collar workers doing the kinds of gag-inducing tasks that, as he puts it, “make life possible for the rest of us.”

We also know the former opera singer (who knew?) as a pitchman for Ford Motor Company’s F-Series of pickup trucks, and the star of a series of spots that capitalize on his image as a champion of blue-collar workers to sell trucks often used by those very workers.

And now we know Mike Rowe as a supporter of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. At least that is what it looks like to a lot of fans – who may now be former fans.

Rowe recently took to the stage with Romney during a campaign event in Bedford Heights, Ohio, speaking about the importance of supporting the kinds of workers – you know, the workers who clean toilets, who mine coal, who pump out septic tanks – whose occupations frequently feature on Dirty Jobs. According to a spokesperson, Rowe was not politically endorsing Romney – who has made his contempt for those of us who don’t inhabit his privileged circle quite clear – and that his contract with Ford doesn’t allow for endorsing candidates.

But that’s a technicality lost on many of us who saw Rowe onstage with Romney at a campaign event and, naturally, assumed it was a political endorsement for a candidate with, ironically, well-known anti-labor views. Many of them took to Dirty Jobs’ Facebook page to vent their anger and here’s one of many such comments:

Republican, eh?? Bummer. You lose, Ford loses and your stupid dirty job, pig show is banned in my home. Bad move.”

I’m sure that’s the kind of “support” that neither the Discovery Channel or Ford are looking for.  A similar situation played out in mid-September when news outlets reported that, while the Most Interesting Man in the World may not always host political fundraisers, when he does, they’re for President Obama.

Jonathan Goldsmith, the actor who plays the distinguished gentleman in a series of ads for Dos Equis beer, endorsed Obama as a private citizen. But his association with the Dos Equis brand brought many Republican fans of the beer to Facebook to say they’d never buy it again:

He's not a TRUE Patriot. No more beer for you, and I won't buy any Heineken products or allow them in my house after seeing the endorsement of Obama. BOYCOTT.”

Heineken USA, which imports Dos Equis, quickly distanced itself from Goldsmith’s actions, telling Advertising Age: "Mr. Goldsmith's opinions and views are strictly his own, and do not represent those of Dos Equis."

It’s clear that this type of personal endorsement of political figures is a very sticky wicket for brands and their ad campaigns. What comes first, their responsibility to the brands they pitch or their right to their personal political views? Wearing my marketing hat, I would say that it’s the former.

If you are paid by a brand to promote its products, it’s highly irresponsible to alienate the brands’ customers by publicly endorsing, or even appearing to endorse, political candidates. And particularly during such a highly-polarized election cycle. Pitchpeople, who have freely chosen to be products’ public faces, still have the right to quietly support candidates through donations and, of course, through their votes.

So why bite the hand that signs your paycheck? That’s something I’ll never quite understand.

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