Top 10 worst celebrity endorsements

Advertisers, and the celebrities who endorse their services, will be liable for any untruthful statements made about products, as part of a crackdown by US regulators announced on Monday.

But apart from being welcomed by the FT in an editorial on Wednesday, the new rules, which cover the use of testimonials in advertising, could prove a hidden boon.

While an endorsement from the right celebrity at the right time, or advertising campaigns using famous people, can prove very beneficial, they can do more harm that good – as this top 10 (in ascending order of embarrassment) of worst celebrity endorsements highlights…

10. US Beef Industry Council – Cybill Shepherd

In 1986, the Beef Industry Council hired actress Cybill Shepherd – the Hollywood starlet who was enjoying a new lease of life alongside Bruce Willis in Moonlighting at the time – to expound on her beef cravings for the “real food for real people” campaign.

Within weeks of the campaign starting, however, Shepherd admitted in public that she tried to “stay away from red meat”.

In January 1988, her contract was not renewed.

9. Sergio Tacchini – Martina Hingis

Hingis - nicknamed the 'Swiss Miss' during an illustrious tennis career was forced to retire at the age of 23 with ankle problems

Hingis - nicknamed the 'Swiss Miss' during an illustrious tennis career was forced to retire at the age of 22 with ankle ligament injuries

Sportstars are a tough crowd for major brands as they have a tendency to fall off their podiums in dramatic ways.

However, Italian tennis brand Sergio Tacchini can be forgiven for being shocked when it was sued by one of its highest-profile stars, Martina Hingis, for forcing her – as she claimed in a Manhattan court filing – into retirement by giving her dodgy gear to wear.

Hingis filed a $25m lawsuit against her sponsor Sergio Tacchini in 2001 which, she claimed, had damaged her feet with “defective” and “unsuitable for competition” tennis shoes.

The Swiss tennis star had signed a five-year £3.5m sponsorship deal with the brand in 1996, but told a Manhattan court that she stopped wearing their clothing and shoes in 1999 after having to withdraw from numerous tournaments, including the Women’s Doubles competition at Wimbledon in 1999.

A US court threw out the claims despite Hingis – who was world No 1 in 1997, 1998 and 2000 – being forced to retire with persistent ankle problems.

In 2007, it is possible that Mr Tacchini, no mean tennis player himself, afforded himself a Schadenfreudian chuckle when Hingis, after a successful return from her ‘retirement’ in 2002, dialled 0 on her career a second time when she tested positive for cocaine.

8. Bayer Healthcare, Winston Cigarettes – The Flintstones

What’s good for one brand, may not necessarily be good for another. The Flintstones – those animated prehistoric doyens of the 1960s stable of working class American wholesomeness – would regularly be seen in commercial breaks puffing on Winston cigarettes, until the company pulled the adverts in 1963 when Wilma (Fred’s wife for the uninitiated) became pregnant.

However, the notoriety certainly didn’t do Winston any harm – and the puffers who created perhaps one of the US’s most enduring slogans “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should…” (1954-1972) continued to be associated with The Flintstones even as the good folks from Bedrock turned their endorsements to a number of products and services specifically for children.

Most notably the Flintstones – having cleaned up their image – are the darlings of Bayer Healthcare, who started selling a brand of Flinstones vitamins in 1968 for kids with commercials that are not entirely dissimilar to the Winston adverts pulled just five years previously…

Video: Flintstones vitamins

One man’s meat etc.


7. Vinnie Jones – Bacardi Rum

You would think that anyone – even a drinks company – would go into an endorsement contract with English football’s self-styled hardman and shotgun enthusiast with their eyes very wide open, but even Barcadi must have been blown away by what Vinnie did next.

In 2003, Bacardi had just finished filming its £1.5m Christmas TV campaign, which involved Vinnie Jones turning from threatening customers, to smooth amenable barman at the sight of a twirling bottle of Bacardi or two.

Unfortunately, it appeared that Jones had not read the new small-print disclaimer at the bottom of each drinks advert in the UK, which urged prospective consumers to “drink responsibly”.

Vinnie Jones outside uxbridge magistrates court after escaping a jail sentence for an air rage incident

Vinnie Jones outside uxbridge magistrates court after escaping a jail sentence for an air rage incident

The drinks company was forced to pull the commercials ten days before Christmas when Jones was convicted of an air-rage incident during which he slapped a fellow passenger on the Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Tokyo 10 times and told crew who tried to intervene that he could “get them murdered”.

Video: Vinnie Jones – the barman

Jones escaped jail, but lost his contract, while Bacardi could only watch on as pro-Cuban campaigners – who tirelessly bait Bacardi – had their day (well Vinnie’s) in court.

6. Anheuser-Busch/ Michelob – Eric Clapton

Back in 1986, a long time before rehab was fashionable among the super-famous, Eric Clapton re-laid down a rather soulful bluesy track called ‘After Midnight’ to advertise Michelob beer for Anheuser-Busch.

Considered one of the greatest blues guitarists of all-time, Clapton also had a reputation for an addictive personality, which included a prolonged period in the 60s and 70s where he was addicted to heroin – once famously being revived on stage.

Having beaten a heroin addiction, Clapton then became increasingly reliant on drink throughout the 80s – a fact that was well noted when he re-recorded ‘After Midnight’ – an ode to drinking in a downtown US bar for Anheuser-Busch.

Eric Clapton plays the blues

5. Heinz Lentil Soup – Paul Francis Gadd

Picture an absurd-looking man in a silver suit and wide sparkling shoulder pads and an over-indulgent quiff beating a horde of screaming kids back from his dressing room door.

Cut to same man drinking Heinz Lentil Soup to the voiceover: “If you’ve had as many comebacks as Gary Glitter..”

Video: Gary Glitter in the soup

Although, perhaps, Heinz was not to know in 1983, it still has to be one of the most ill-advised celebrity endorsements in history. In hindsight.

4. Orson Welles – Findus Frozen Peas

Orson Welles, the legendary “Citizen Kane” film-maker, was notoriously difficult to work with and almost impossible to handle when supplementing his income with advertising.

During this famously session Orson Welles questions the copy, calls the engineer and director “idiotic”, and claims, without any irony, that “there is too much directing around here”.

Exasperated he tells the director he has “no idea what I am up against”, the copy is “too wearying to read”, “unrewarding” and finally declares he “wouldn’t direct any living actor like this” before walking out.

The clip is famous among comedians and entertainment industry professionals and “Frozen Peas” has become slang for an audio blooper reel.

Audio: Peas break out over Orson Welles

To be fair to Orson, he had a point about the appalling script.

3. Wal-Mart – Kathie Lee Gifford

When Wal-Mart asked Kathie Lee Gifford, a WABC-TV talk-show host in 1990s who was considered a role model for working mothers, to put her name to a range of clothing, they probably had no idea how the move would change the face of retailing in America.

In 1996, the US National Labor Committee found that Gifford’s clothing line was being produced at a sweatshop in Honduras by 13- to 15-year-old girls, working up to 75 hours a week for 31 cents an hour.

One of the workers, Wendy Diaz, captured the nation when she came to the United States to testify about the conditions under which she worked.

After the revelation, Gifford worked with US Federal legislative and executive branch agencies to support and enact laws to protect children against sweat shop conditions. She appeared with President Bill Clinton at the White House in support of initiatives to counter international sweat shop abuses.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has struggled to shake its association as the first major retailer to be found to use sweat shops.

2. Kmart – Martha Stewart

Kmart was hoping that Martha Stewart’s “Everyday” line would salvage the one-time retail giant from the depths of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Instead, soon after the line was released, the Feds charged Stewart with insider trading. Although Stewart and her brand (which is now being run by Macy’s) were able to recover, Kmart never did.

1. Pepsi – Choice of a generation campaigns (various)

Michael Jackson – New Generation

Pepsi began two decades of appalling decisions and ill-advised celebrity endorsements by anointing Michael Jackson, quite literally. The drinks giant, determined to challenge its bitter rival Coca-Cola, had signed Jackson – then at the height of his fame after his second solo album, “Thriller”, had become the most successful commercial album of all time. During a commercial, it set fire to the pop idol’s hair. The company eventually settled out of court for $1.5m but was dogged by persistent rumours in the media suggesting that the incident was the beginning of Jackson’s long-running skin problems.

Video: Michael Jackson and Pepsi

Madonna – Like A Prayer

Before the release of Madonna’s much-anticipated fourth album “Like a Prayer,” Pepsi decided to use the song as part of a commercial featuring the pop superstar. In addition, the company struck a deal to sponsor her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour.

Video: Madonna ‘Like a Prayer’ – the Pepsi version

The commercial aired just twice before the video for “Like A Prayer” made its debut on MTV. Pepsi was unaware of the video’s content: Madonna witnesses a murder, kisses and cavorts with a black saint, fakes stigmata by cutting herself, and dances in a field of burning crosses…

Video: Madonna ‘Like a Prayer’ – original version

Some religious groups were furious and threatened to boycott Pepsi, which in turn decided to cancel the ad campaign and tour sponsorship, though Madonna kept the contracted $5m.

Britney Spears – Coke lover

Just over a decade later, Pepsi made a similarly controversial step in appointing Britney Spears as the voice of a new generation of pop idols, long before her “breakdown” in 2007.

Video: Britney Spears and her love of Cola

She lasted a year until 2002 after being repeatedly pictured on numerous occasions drinking Coca-Cola. The more wholesome Beyonce replaced her.

Have I missed any? Let me know by reply…

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About the authors

Leyla Boulton is an editor on the FT's main newsdesk
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT's media editor
Robin Harding is an FT correspondent in Tokyo
George Parker is the FT's political editor
Sean Smith is an editor on the FT's international companies desk

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