Bad Rehab

Rebranding Charlie Sheen and the naughty boys

For the first step of his comeback, Sheen capitalized on his crack-up with a Comedy Central Roast last September, which set a ratings record for the series of specials with 6.4 million viewers, beating out former roastees such as Donald Trump, William Shatner and Pamela Anderson.

“He has always been on our radar for the roast,” says Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central’s svp, specials and talent. “None of us were blind to his troubles. We were concerned about a backlash because we didn’t want to be seen as enabling him. We wanted to make sure he was on a path to recovery.”

DirecTV harnessed the actor’s spaced-out energy in a spot in which Sheen plays self-parody to the hilt. Tor Myhren, president and CCO of Grey in New York, which created the commercial, says his team had no reservations about playing off Sheen’s bad-boy image, believing his real-life antics served the ad’s tongue-in-cheek humor. (The spot warns the consumer that if he doesn’t get DirecTV, he could end up finding himself recreating scenes from Platoon with the actor.)

“You know what you’re getting with Charlie Sheen,” says Myhren. “He’s a controversial figure and a massive star, and because this entire concept was based around spiraling out of control, it just seemed so perfect for what he had just gone though.”

Immediately after the spots began airing, DirecTV experienced a low-double-digit increase in call volume to its 800 number, says Jon Gieselman, svp, marketing. And Sheen’s ad enjoyed 35 percent more YouTube views than the campaign’s four other similar spots and 50 percent more likes on Facebook, according to YouTube and Facebook data.

Again playing to his particular brand of mania, Sheen acted in a Fiat spot, created by Doner in Detroit, portraying him as under house arrest, locked into an ankle bracelet while speeding through his mansion in a Fiat 500 Abarth as adoring models looked on. First released on YouTube, the ad clocked 4 million Web views before being aired on broadcast and cable networks, says Olivier Francois, head of Fiat Brand worldwide and CMO of Chrysler Group.

Sheen is hardly the only bad seed to escape scandal not only unscathed but profiting handsomely. In February 2009, pop star Chris Brown was arrested after allegedly assaulting his then-girlfriend, singer Rihanna, including punching her in the eye and slamming her head against a car window. (Brown later pled guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to five years probation plus community service.)

Brown didn’t make it easy for fans to forgive. He waited more than five months to publicly apologize, claiming that his lawyers had advised him not to speak. Since then, numerous incidents seemed to show a lack of remorse, including a March 2011 appearance on Good Morning America. After he was asked about Rihanna on the program, Brown responded off-air by smashing a window in the studio, then tweeting, “I’m so over people bringing this past s**t up!!!”

Despite being a publicist’s nightmare, Brown’s album, F.A.M.E., released the week of the GMA incident, debuted in the top spot on the Billboard chart, spawned three hit singles and was nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning for best R&B album.

Brown’s success demonstrates how fans will not only stick by a celebrity who misbehaves, but may even identify with him more strongly. (Consider the slew of online devotees who blamed Rihanna for her own attack.)

“People are invested in these celebrities personally. We love what they do, how they look and what they stand for,” says Lisa Linden, CEO of the PR firm Linden Alschuler & Kaplan and a longtime PR adviser to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. “The collapse of a celebrity in a scandal situation carries a piece of ourselves with it. We want them to recapture the lives and the value they had to us prior to the scandal.”

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