Ignoring ignominy: Why the disgraced can still sell
In a famous 1993 ad for Nike, Charles Barkley declared, "I am not a role model." The ornery basketball star sparked a debate about whether an athlete's personal character should be separated from his performance. But little did he know he was also describing a key principle of marketing psychology.
According to a new study from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, that very process of distinguishing professional achievement from personal fault is a major factor for consumers who choose to continue buying products endorsed by scandal-ridden celebrities - and it is why disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is now persona non grata in the endorsement world: Nike and a raft of other sponsors cut ties with him last week, followed by sunglasses maker Oakley on Monday.
The authors of the report, which will be published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, examine the reasoning consumers go through when they choose to support a celebrity following a scandal. Some will simply rationalize the behaviour; by saying, for example, that Tiger Woods' philandering was not that serious a transgression. But they found that the other strategy of separating behaviours - which they call "moral decoupling" - is much more attractive, because it allows a consumer to keep supporting a celebrity brand they like without implicating themselves.
For example, people who say that Mr. Woods is a lout, but that it doesn't change his achievements in golf or their choice to buy his gear, are engaged in moral decoupling.
"This separation strategy, that we find is intuitively appealing to a lot of people," said Jonathan Berman, a doctoral student at Wharton who is a lead author on the study with former fellow student Amit Bhattacharjee (now a faculty member at Dartmouth), under the supervision of Wharton professor Americus Reed II.
The researchers conducted a number of experiments to study this cognitive process. Participants in one study rated the ease of separating personal conduct and job performance. Consistently, they rated that type of argument easier to justify than rationalizing away the bad behaviour.
But one of the studies demonstrated how difficult this strategy is when a person's transgression is harder to decouple from their professional life. Participants were given a scenario in which a baseball player used steroids, and another in which the player cheated on income taxes. Among a list of statements defending the player, nearly two-thirds of participants chose a statement saying his actions should not affect our judgment of his job performance; less than half that many chose that type of statement when it came to steroids.
Moral decoupling is not likely to help Mr. Armstrong, then - but it may hold some hope for the brand, Livestrong, tied to his cancer charity, and for the charity's fundraising efforts in the long run. Most brands who ditched the athlete included statements of continued support for Livestrong or for the foundation, in their announcements.