Spokespeople in the Social Age: Good Idea or Bad Idea?


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(This post first appeared on the Infegy blog.)

Call them what you want — brand advocates, spokespeople, celebrity representatives, paid shills — influencer marketing is alive and well.

It used to be simpler, too: your celebrity/spokesperson appears in radio, television, and/or photo ads. But social media has changed the rules.

Brands have to worry about the overall public perception of these spokespeople as advertising has developed from traditional media into the modern multichannel experience.

Do brand advocates and spokespeople actually hurt the brands they represent? We looked at five well-known faux pas to find out.

Image Source: Adobe Stock
Image Source: Adobe Stock

1. Jared Fogle hurt, but Subway quickly recovered.

When: July 2015

What Happened: On July 7, 2015, the FBI raided Fogle’s home for child pornography, causing Subway to indefinitely suspend ties with the spokesperson.

Comment: On the day the story broke, about 40% of Subway posts contain mentions of Jared; within a week, it fell to almost nothing.

Jared Fogle hurt, but Subway quickly recovered.
Data provided by Infegy Atlas.

When the story broke, negative sentiment for Jared spiked at 91% with men and women split 2:1 in conversation data, respectively.

While Jared did impact Subway’s public perception, the brand was able to recover quickly. In the 4 weeks prior to the raid, Subway maintained an average 84% positive sentiment; in the 4 weeks following the raid on Fogle’s home, sentiment averaged 74%, a fall of just 10%.

Subway's sentiment took nearly 4 weeks to recover to similar levels.
Data provided by Infegy Atlas.

It took a little more than 4 weeks for sentiment to recover to its previous levels.

2. Rob Schneider’s anti-vax views dragged on State Farm’s public image.

When: September 2014

What Happened: Rob Schneider believes that there is a link between vaccinations and autism.

After appearing in an ad which declared State Farm provided health insurance including coverage for vaccines, Schneider declared that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

State Farm responded, saying simply that the ad had “unintentionally been used as a platform for discussion unrelated to the products and services we provide.”

Comment: Despite the overwhelming negative response from certain audiences like parents, just 3% of conversations for State Farm during this time contained mentions of Rob Schneider.

Rob Schneider's Drag on State Farm Sentiment
Data provided by Infegy Atlas.

State Farm experienced an average sentiment lift of about 10% from ~70% to almost 80% after dropping Schneider from representation.

3. Michael Phelps’ bong photo lifted Kellogg’s sentiment out of a peanut butter recall slump.

When: February 2009

What Happened: After claiming a record 8 gold medals in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Phelps was photographed smoking from a bong containing marijuana. Kellogg’s dropped him from sponsorship and USA Swimming suspended the swimmer from competition for three months.

Comment: On the day the story broke, 75% of Kellogg’s posts mention Michael Phelps. The average fell over that week to 46% of Kellogg’s posts. Interestingly, only 1% of Michael Phelps posts mention Kellogg’s during the same period.

Connections with Kellogg's in 'Michael Phelps' Data
Data provided by Infegy Atlas

Sentiment for the photo within Kellogg’s conversation averaged at 48% negative, staying that way for over a month. But Kellogg’s sentiment got a little higher — as did Phelps, apparently — with the release of the infamous bong photo.

Looking at historical conversation data, we found that a peanut butter recall the month prior affected Kellogg’s much more negatively, with Phelps’ gaffe unintentionally giving the brand a much-needed distraction.

Kellogg's Sentiment Gets Higher on Phelps' Bong Photo
Data provided by Infegy Atlas.

Before the recall, Kellogg’s sentiment averaged 60%, falling to 35% as the story developed. This makes Phelps’ association at 48% negative sentiment a relative improvement from the recall.

4. Paula Deen’s admitted racial slurs dominated Food Network’s social conversations for an entire month.

When: June 2013

What Happened: After former employees sued Deen for alleged racial and sexual discrimination, the former Food Network star doubled down on the charges.

In her defense, Paula Deen indicated that ‘of course’ she used the n-word in her life without due consideration of its racially-charged legacy.

Comment: Where the other stories we have examined have seen rapid declines in public mentions tying the spokesperson to the brand, Food Network exhibited a more sustained association with the disgraced brand advocate.

Paula Deen Dominates Food Network's Social Convos
Data provided by Infegy Atlas

During the week the story broke, 68% of Food Network posts contained a mention of Paula Deen. Even throughout the entire month, almost half of Food Network mentions contained Deen.

5. Allegations against longtime Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby impacted both the celebrity and the brand.

When: November 2014

What Happened: Publicly accused of sexually assaulting 26 women, Bill Cosby continues an extended battle to preserve his brand image.

Cosby also currently faces defamation cases filed by seven women and a criminal case in Pennsylvania.

Comment: In the week the story broke in November 2014, 10% of Jell-O conversations contain mentions of Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby Melts Jell-O in Public Perception
Data provided by Infegy Atlas

In the weeks before the story, Jell-O averaged around 55% in positive public sentiment. As the renewed allegations against Cosby surfaced and the story continued to develop, negative sentiment traded evenly with positive, averaging around 55% negative.

Jell-O's Public Sentiment Recovery
Data provided by Infegy Atlas.

It took approximately 3 months for the brand’s public sentiment to recover to prior levels.

6. BONUS: The “Vampire Effect”

Brands beware the vampire effect of influencer marketing.
Image Background Source: Adobe Stock

What is the ‘vampire effect’?

The vampire effect in product or brand endorsement is a phenomenon that means customers remember the spokesperson but not the brand or product.

Researchers suggest the best way to measure this is through gauging consumers’ recall of the brand after seeing them in an advertisement.

Remember Billy Mays?

The reason I bring him up is simple: growing up, I saw him sell tons of products in late-night TV ads. To this day, though, I can only associate him with OxiClean, despite the long list of other products he advertised with his energetic charisma.

We can search public conversations to look at both sides of this question:

  • How the brand fares when they’re mentioned alongside a disgraced spokesperson.
  • How the brand fares when mentioned alone.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  1. Digging deeper to understand how the allegations against Bill Cosby impacted both Jell-O and the celebrity spokesperson.
  2. Monitoring longer-term PR incidents, like Paula Deen’s court case, for key pain points in the Food Network viewing audience.
  3. Isolating public events like the FBI’s raid on Jared Fogle to the spokesperson instead of the brand’s overall public image.

What to do about the vampire effect?

Align spokespeople with your brand, don’t mix-and-match. Athletes, for example, make excellent spokespeople for products people will naturally associate with sports — recovery drinks, apparel, shoes, or even sports equipment they personally prefer. Celebs from other areas may overwhelm the audience’s perception of your product otherwise.

Hire lower-key spokespeople. As our examples show, brands will carry the short-term associations wherever their spokesperson is involved — the more unpredictable the spokesperson, the greater the risk they might cloud or dilute a brand’s image. Managing this risk effectively sets ad campaigns up for long-term success.

Speaking of long-term partnerships, maintaining a consistent spokesperson tends to indicate sincere commitment. Every brand risks their spokesperson overwhelming the overall brand image, but the reverse could also happen in longer-term endorsements: the spokesperson can become synonymous with the brand instead because of their personal investment.

Peyton Manning, for example, has endorsed Papa John’s since 2011. In 2012, he signalled his commitment to the brand by signing on to own 21 of his own locations for the brand in the Denver area.

Spokespeople CAN hurt their brands — but it’s not that simple.

Based on our data, it seems possible that bad spokespeople might have long-term repercussions for a brand, but in general, brands tend to recover quickly. In this post, we found that:

  1. Jared Fogle hurt public perception, but Subway recovered quickly.
  2. Rob Schneider’s anti-vaccination views dragged on State Farm’s overall public sentiment.
  3. Michael Phelps’ bong photo actually provided a distraction to lift Kellogg’s public sentiment out of a peanut butter recall slump.
  4. Paula Deen’s admitted racial slurs dominated Food Network’s social media conversations for more than a month.
  5. Bill Cosby’s nearly synonymous association with Jell-O meant the brand took a significant hit alongside the celebrity spokesperson.

Brand advocates, constantly connected to fans via the social media universe at their fingertips, often leverage their social media presence as a benefit of their endorsement.

So how can brands minimize the risk of the spokespeople they hire?

Proactive social research can even help prevent incidents that might damage the brand’s image by analyzing what consumers are saying online.

Much of the risk can be mitigated in the research and vetting stage for selecting spokespeople. Brands must consider:

  • The long-term implications of choosing a spokesperson.
  • How potential spokespeople align with the brand’s message.
  • Past behavior and events that might resurface or predict future behavior.
  • Public perception and any associations a spokesperson may carry.
  • Selecting a spokesperson to convey a particular strategic message.

(This post first appeared on the Infegy blog.)

Jordan Hanson
Jordan Hanson conducts market research for Infegy, the industry's leading social media intelligence platform that empowers marketing and research professionals to gain true understanding of consumers. Between cultivating the Infegy blog and the development of new project initiatives, she works closely with ad agencies, market researchers, and consumer insight teams.


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