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Ignoring ignominy: Why disgraced celebrities can still sell

Then US Postal team rider Lance Armstrong waits in front of the pack of riders for the start of the 192.5km first stage of the 89th Tour de France cycling race in Luxembourg in this July 7, 2002 file photo. Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life the International Cycling Union.


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.

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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. Ditto those who deplore insider trading but continue to pepper their homes with Martha Stewart's crafty party decor.

"This separation strategy, that we find is intuitively appealing to a lot of people…because you don't need to compromise your own moral standards in the process," 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. "If you rationalize, and say what he did isn't that bad, that says something about who you are as a person. You're compromising your own moral standards, and it's difficult to argue."

The researchers conducted a number of experiments to study this cognitive process. For example, by analysing 125 comments in 35 articles about Tiger Woods following the revelations about his cheating on his wife, the researchers found that roughly 59 per cent used that separation argument – and more importantly, that those who did so were overwhelmingly more likely to write comments that expressed overall support for the athlete than others, including those who rationalized his behaviour. Participants in one study rated the ease of separating personal conduct and job performance. Consistently, they rated that type of argument easier to justify (between 4.8 and 5.5 out of 7, depending on how relevent the actions were to that person's professional life) than rationalizing away the bad behaviour.

In another study, participants were given a scenario where a visionary CEO of a technology company supported discriminatory hiring policies. Beforehand, one group was asked to read about other situations where rationalizing the behaviour would apply(referencing "situational pressures," for example,) while another group read about scenarios were decoupling was helpful, with statements such as, "It is inappropriate to take into account someone's personal actions when assessing their job performance."

Compared to a group who read no statements, those who were primed to consider "moral decoupling" rated the highest likelihood to purchase the company's product (75 per cent likely on average, compared to 58 per cent in the base group), even while rating his immorality nearly as high as the other groups. They also rated the CEO's performance significantly higher.

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.

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