Back in January 2015, it seemed like such a sweet pairing: Dannon and NFL quarterback Cam Newton. Dannon had just made a deal to be the official yogurt of the NFL, and made a side deal with Newton, who would serve as the lead pitchman for Dannon's new Oikos Triple Zero.
Oh, they were such happy, carefree times:
What could possibly go wrong? Brands make deals with celebrities and influencers all the time, and we all know that once a deal is signed, the celebrity or influencer will be super, super careful not to do or say anything that might reflect badly on the brand. Well-known and well-paid celebrities, in particular, just love to take suggestions from brands they work with on how to behave in public, in private and on social media—that weird conflation of the public and private.
So this comes as a real shock:
With that bottle of Gatorade positioned nicely for the camera in a news conference on Oct. 4, the Carolina Panthers quarterback smiled when asked about pass routes by Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue—a beat writer covering the Panthers—and said, almost as an aside, "It's funny, to hear a female talk about routes."
It may have sounded funny to Newton, but perhaps he should have filed that thought under "things to think spontaneously but not say aloud at a news conference." You can be sure that Dannon wishes he had used his mind's filing system better, because shortly afterward it released a statement to the media saying it will no longer work with Newton and is removing advertising that features him.
In a statement shared with the media, but oddly not available as a press release or linked on its website or Twitter account, Michael Neuwirth, a senior director of external communications for Dannon, said, "We are shocked and disheartened at the behavior and comments of Cam Newton toward Jourdan Rodrigue, which we perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women. It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It’s simply not OK to belittle anyone based on gender."
Brands will never stop taking risks on celebrity endorsements—there's too much to be gained. Whatever might be written into a contract, human behavior remains unpredictable. All the vetting in the world is no guarantee that a brand won't end up drafting that all-too familiar statement expressing shock and dismay.