Michael Jackson a singing-and-dancing pedophile? Come on . . . He who is the world, who frequents burn centers as much as the Babe did bordellos, who with a single glove" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" >

Another one bites the dust By Richard Morga

Michael Jackson a singing-and-dancing pedophile? Come on . . . He who is the world, who frequents burn centers as much as the Babe did bordellos, who with a single glove

Then again, our collective conscience can’t help being nagged by another voice, a voice not nearly as dulcet as Michael’s. It’s the one that says I told you so. The voice that asks: How many 35-year-olds do you know whose sartorial sensibilities can’t resist Lycra diapers as outer wear? How many young men who can have anything they want retain kids and pets as their partners of preference? How many performing artists still relish grabbing their crotches and singing “I’m bad” a full two decades after their adolescent prime?
It may not matter if you’re black or white, Michael, but it would certainly help advertisers if you behaved that way. Magic too, for that matter, and Tyson makes three. Same with that other Michael, not to mention formerly fun couple Burr and Loni.
The point is, for advertisers still smitten with celebrities, these are perilous times. Only a year ago, Woody Allen wouldn’t stoop to advertising, except maybe in Asia. This year, no advertiser would stoop to Woody Allen, except maybe in Asia. For Michael, the evidence leaked before press time was as damaging as unsubstantiated evidence can be.
The “top-secret report” from the Los Angeles Department of Children’s Services, which for all of its top-secretness found its way to the New York Post, couldn’t have had more credibility if labored over by a top-flight copywriter. But then why shouldn’t it have credibility if, as Michael’s camp alleges, it’s part of a $20-million extortion attempt? That sort of gross, once translated into billings, attracts the best copywriting talent money can buy.
Which raises another point: Although perilous times for advertisers, they’re glorious times for agencies. They should be, anyway, in that agencies don’t need celebrities. Talent agents definitely need celebrities, and some advertisers think they need them. But agencies can get around celebrities, because agencies have another dimension. Agencies can take a brand, formulate a strategy and give the brand not just meaning but personality.
Agencies can even create celebrities. And, in some of advertising’s better half-minutes, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Clara, Herb, Joe Isuzu, Max Headroom, Jim “Know What I Mean, Vern?” Varney, not to mention Bartles & Jaymes–these and numerous others, including Mariette Hartley and Michael Naughton, owe their public introduction, if not the sum of their public awareness, to Madison Avenue.
How valuable is this craft of creating celebrities from whole cloth? Increasingly valuable, it would seem, in an increasingly hypocritical world. Jerry Della Femina, no stranger to inventing celebrities himself (his best being himself), predicted on Nightline last week that Michael’s recording career would–at worst–be unaffected. Meanwhile, Michael’s endorsing career would–at best–be over. (The worst that could happen to Michael on the endorsement front would be Pepsi’s invoking its “morals clause,” thus ending all contractual obligations, as well as commercial association, with the onetime voice of a new generation.)
Della Femina’s observation captures the inconsistency between paid media and free media. It used to be the public knew nothing and forgave nothing. Ingrid Bergman was drummed out of Hollywood for mothering a child out of wedlock. Compare that to today, when the public not only knows everything but forgives everything.
Hence the parade of celebrities to that ’90s confession box known as the talk show. Compare Bergman’s ostracism to last week’s free-media treatment of Anthony “Zorba the Stud” Quinn for fathering a child out of wedlock. Good career move, Tony. Right up there with Jack Palance’s one-arm push-ups on Oscar night.
When something newsworthy happens to a celebrity–good or bad–the free media know to address the paid-media implications. In fact, there’s no easier sidebar to the Michael Jackson news story than the Michael Jackson endorsement story. Same with the Michael Jordan gambling story. As for the good stuff, up-and-coming endorsers are quickly identified in the free media’s coverage of the Masters, the Super Bowl, the U.S. Open or anyplace else where stars are born. Almost as quickly, of course, the same media await the same celebrity endorser’s fall.
It’s great sport, and it’s likely to get greater as the chasm between celebrities’ lives and the image advertisers want to project widens. Who knows? The trend may even make advertisers less dependent on celebrities and more dependent on agencies. If so, the commercial form will become more and more like that other bastion of suspended disbelief–Broadway. There, still, the play’s the thing.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)