Fame On You

The amateur video shows a shirtless, intoxicated David Hasselhoff lying on the floor with a piece of hamburger hanging from his mouth. Off camera, his teenage daughter, Taylor, is telling papa Hoff he can’t have any (more) alcohol or he’ll be kicked off his TV show. He tries to respond coherently, but instead turns his back to the camera as we see the detritus of his not-so-happy meal.

The potentially damaging tape, which was leaked last spring, has received more than 1 million YouTube hits, and even made it to the TV entertainment news shows and their end-of-year recaps. The public’s desire to see the underbelly of Hasselhoff’s private life (although, given the way it looked in the video, perhaps not his actual belly) was equaled by its fascination with celebrity trips to jail, rehab and other assorted family dramas. In terms of celebrity meltdowns, the past 12 months have been a feast for the senses—like living in the wired equivalent of ancient Rome.

But this year, something different happened along with the tabloid frenzy. That is to say, something didn’t happen. No matter how shameful the incident—drugs, DUIs or even charges of sexual harassment, there were, for the most part, no repercussions. Americans, it seems, have become desensitized to scandal.

One month after the hamburger-dangling video first aired, the man famous for talking to a car won full physical custody of his kids in a divorce battle. And although America’s Got Talent, the reality show on which Hasselhoff is the “nice” judge, started up shortly after the video was leaked, his presence hardly hurt the program’s ratings.

Similarly, on the A-lister front, Alec Baldwin dodged a bullet. His abusive voicemail message to his 12-year-old daughter, in which he called her a “little pig” for not picking up the phone, was leaked to TMZ.com, also last spring. He offered to quit his starring role as morality-free GE boss Jack Donaghy on NBC’s hit show 30 Rock, but the network’s powers-that-be insisted he stay. Post- voicemail release, Baldwin was nominated for an Emmy for best actor (he didn’t win), and the show won best comedy series. Just last week he was nominated for a Golden Globe, after taking home that award last year.

Of course, some celebrities have always gotten away with murder (literally, in a couple of cases), but it was only in 2004 that the minor affair called Nipplegate—when Janet Jackson’s nipple was revealed during the Super Bowl halftime—seemed to bring her career to a crashing, if momentary, halt. Forced to withdraw from an ABC special in which she was slated to play Lena Horne, Jackson also saw sales of Damita Jo, the CD she released weeks after the fiasco, sell just under 1 million copies.

In a culture where everyone wants to be—and now has the outlets to be—famous, it makes sense that stars are getting away with bad behavior. The average 14-year-old carries a camera phone, and college kids get drunk and post sexually revealing photos of themselves on Facebook—for fun.

“All of this laundry-airing is definitely raising our shock and awe thresholds,” says Ann Mack, director of trend spotting at JWT. “And as an open-book, confessional society, we are more forgiving than we ever have been.”

It’s no surprise then, that this year’s list of misbehaving celebs with unscarred careers is a long one. Lindsay Lohan, Kiefer Sutherland and Kid Rock, for instance, were all given jail sentences, and still have active careers. And Isaiah Washington, who used a gay slur at the Emmys to explain how he had never used a gay slur, got booted off ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, then got picked up for a story arc in NBC’s Bionic Woman (after serving some time in “anger management” classes).

Even Paris Hilton, more often mocked these days than celebrated, left her 23 days in lockup blushing and looking triumphant, like a first-time bride. Her sometime pal Nicole Ritchie was photographed walking into her police booking pregnant and chic in a little black dress and dark sunglasses, like Jackie Onassis. Rehab is so au courant that singer Amy Winehouse, whose name has since become synonymous with “train wreck,” became famous for singing “no, no, no” about her refusal to go get clean. Days after being photographed walking around the frigid streets of London, hair down, barefoot and in a semi-nude stupor, Winehouse was nominated for six Grammys, including one for album of the year.

Martha Stewart, of course, paved the way for flouting the law while keeping her reputation, and her brand, intact. When she was sentenced in 2004 for lying to investigators about insider trading, most pundits predicted that if the High Priestess of Perfection were to serve time in the big house, her empire would collapse. Not only did she prevail, but she handled the outcome of the sentencing in classic Martha form—by standing in front of the microphones outside the courthouse and shamelessly holding a press conference to promote her brand.

Revenue growth for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for 2006 was in the double digits, according to Hoover’s Financial Records.

Of course, it took a while for MSLO to build back up after Stewart’s release, and so it goes with building back the numbers of stations carrying shock jock Don Imus’s latest morning show. He, of course, was fired from his syndicated show on CBS radio (and its MSNBC simulcast) after describing the Rutgers University female basketball team with a phrase that is by now well known, but so demeaning that it does not bear repeating. He was severely chastised for his actions.

Imus apologized in a face-to-face meeting with the team that got national attention. The I-Man’s contrition (and his power to attract listeners and sponsors) worked swiftly: Eight months later, he returned to the air on WABC-AM in New York on a morning show syndicated nationally by ABC Radio Networks, with two new African-American regulars (male and female) added to his crew to showcase his supposedly heightened sensitivity. Although he must rebuild his radio empire, and former national advertisers like Procter & Gamble, American Express, Staples and General Motors have yet to return, a coterie of sponsors is happily filling the time.

In the New York market, for example, 1-800 Mattress immediately returned to the Imus-in-the-morning fold. According to Joe Vicens, evp at 1-800 Mattress, “We don’t condone or support or endorse any personalities. This is purely from a numbers standpoint. If a station is doing well for us and bringing in qualified customers, we will advertise with them.” In its first week of reupping, he adds, the company is “already seeing a return” on its investment.

But if this were the year when abhorrent behavior became increasingly acceptable, one line was drawn in the sand: As a culture, we have zero tolerance for dog abuse. When Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick was found guilty of housing a dogfighting operation on his rural Virginia property and for having an active role in the killing of pit bulls, he was sentenced to 23 months in prison—more than the 12 to 18 months prosecutors originally suggested as part of Vick’s plea agreement.

When news of the dogfighting scandal broke last July, Vick was immediately suspended from the National Football League. Not long after that, Nike announced it was cutting all endorsement ties with Vick, but delayed the decision of whether to release his Air Zoom Vick V shoe. The sneaker giant soon decided to pull it altogether. The company also removed all items bearing Vick’s name from company stores, which amounted to a considerable financial hit.

Since then, Vick has lost all of his endorsement deals, including those with Reebok, which pulled Vick jerseys from retail shelves, and trading card companies Donruss and Upper Deck, which removed his autographed memorabilia from its online store. He was also stripped of his contract with AirTran Airways and might still have to pay back some $20-35 million in signing bonuses to the Falcons. Vick, like Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, underwent the equivalent of getting all of his medals stripped, Foreign Legion style.

The act of abusing dogs, it seems, is taken far more seriously than the act of victimizing women: In October, New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was found liable for sexual harassment against a former colleague, Anucha Browne Sanders, but Thomas kept his high-level, high-paying job (and Sanders was awarded nearly $12 million, to be paid not by Thomas, but by his employers).

As a country, we love our pets, but what can account for such a vast difference in sensitivity? Perhaps it’s because juries can view women as fallible human beings, and pets can’t testify. In addition, animal rights activists can sometimes seem louder and more organized than human rights groups: Throughout Vick’s arrest and sentencing, activists organized and showed up in the hundreds to protest dog cruelty, even marching outside the Falcons’ training camp. No protestors of recent domestic abuse or sexual harassment cases can say the same.

Sadly, the standards are far more malleable for someone who is endangering her kids and herself. In terms of sheer shock value, Britney Spears has had a year impossible to keep up with: the vajayjay sightings, the shaved head, the quickie trips to rehab, the crying kids (whom she takes to Starbucks as if it’s a pre-school). Her stunningly bad showing at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, as she barely tried to lip-sync her new single “Gimme More” and danced like a Britney impersonator with a limp, begged the question: Why was she hired in the first place?

Sure, Spears had a “comeback” CD to sell, the aptly named Blackout, but more to the point, VMA producers were betting that our collective appetite for scandal would keep us glued to our TV sets, not turning them off on moral grounds. Some 7.09 million viewers tuned in, a 23 percent increase over last year’s VMA delivery, according to Nielsen Media Research (which, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.).

Her performance that night foreshadowed disaster for Blackout, but the album shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s charts in its first week—most likely because it was outsourced to great writers and producers. In the last data available, for week 5, Blackout had dropped to number 41, right above Christmastime in Larryland by Larry the Cable Guy. (Billboard is also a unit of the Nielsen Co.)

But Spears’ crashing career may be another exception to the no-repercussions rule. Her talent was her discipline and ability to craft a tightly controlled public image. Without it, there’s nothing to promote. And with photographers covering her every move and the public still buying the magazines that put her on their covers, it seems we’re still curious about her future—and willing to give her a pass if she can pull it together.

After the dust settled, one rabid fan chose to defend Spears—and get his own moment in the sun. Wearing heavy makeup and a sheet covering part of his head, a young Tennessean named Chris Crocker recorded his emotional, tear-stained plea for people to “leave Britney alone.” Although the video received more than 8 million hits on YouTube, Crocker’s performance was so over the top that not long ago he might have been left cowering in his house, too embarrassed to be seen. By contrast, he’s already lined up a deal to star in a reality show.

According to New York-based clinical psychologist Karen Greene, “There’s a definite cult of celebrity—and [a corresponding] sense of privilege—in the country right now, especially for younger people. It validates their sense of self. There’s not much else going on in their lives and they worship celebrity for itself.”

But is this a trend doomed to stick around? JWT’s Mack predicts that “wherever there is extremity, there is a going to be a swing back.” And when it does, she adds, there will be remorse over all of the transparency.

“A good chunk of the incriminating material whirling around cybersphere will be expunged,” she adds. “And companies like Reputation Defender, which promises to search out and destroy all inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful and slanderous information on its clients, will cash in.”

Just don’t expect that to happen for awhile. In the meantime, stars like Hasselhoff won’t mind being at the feast.