The body count of corporate backers, so far, is officially one. But Tiger Woods' millions of dollars worth of endorsement deals are in critical condition.
Consulting firm Accenture on Sunday became the first company to drop its sponsorship deal with the world's top golfer. Gillette Co., which makes shaving products, has scaled back ads in which he appears.
AT&T and watch maker Tag Heuer said they are still evaluating their deals. Nike Inc. and EA Sports will continue their relationships with Mr. Woods, while other sponsors have stayed mum on their intentions since before he admitted that he cheated on his wife.
Over the past two weeks, as the scandal - and the parade of mistresses - hit the spotlight, the damage to the athlete's personal and professional life has become clear. But what of the brands that allied themselves with his image?
"There is the possibility of collateral damage right out of the gate," said Kevin Adler, president of Chicago-based Engage Marketing, which advises companies on the use of sports and entertainment stars as spokespeople.
In the past, Mr. Adler has counselled companies in the midst of scandals that saw their public face become toxic. "You align a corporate brand with a celebrity brand ... the two have to match up."
Because of the "inherent risk" in using celebrities in ads, morality clauses have become more common in endorsement contracts, Mr. Adler said. That way, when a scandal hits, the company has the right to sever ties. But even when they do, "that behaviour is already out in the marketplace and that damage is done," he noted.
That's why the best strategy is to pull back, the way most of Mr. Woods's sponsors have done, said Graham Kerr, executive vice-president of New Rork-based marketing research company Millward Brown.
"From that point on, you reflect: Where's my brand now?"
Even if they've been burned, most companies eventually go back to stars to endorse their products, said Queen's University marketing professor Kenneth Wong. "Celebrities help break through the clutter."
But when celebrities break down, the brands they endorse run the risk of being buried in the wreckage. The toll of Tiger's trysts has yet to be completely felt, but companies have been digging their way out of endorsement scandals since long before the latest mudslinging.
The people at Procter & Gamble Co. dealt with a major scandal in the 1970s when the dewy blond model on their Ivory Snow detergent box proved to be significantly less than "99 and 44/100 per cent pure." Until 1972, Ms. Chambers' fame was limited to a few minor parts in movies and posing serenely with a baby on detergent packages; but that year she starred in what would become a porn classic, Behind the Green Door.
"Obviously she was dropped summarily," Prof. Wong said, adding that P&G had employed her angelic smile to portray a wholesome image. Ivory still trades on its purity; while the rest of Ms. Chambers' career can be summed up by the famous Mae West quote, "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."
Burning crosses, pop star stigmata and flaunting cleavage in church didn't win Madonna any friends on the religious right in 1989. The release of her Like a Prayer music video also complicated things for Pepsi-Cola Co., which had paid the singer $5-million for a commercial deal. The American Family Association, a Christian group, called for a boycott, because the company originally refused to cancel the contract. Less than two weeks later, Pepsi pulled its U.S. ads - which featured the song - and axed plans for future spots.
Ultimately, brands need to make an emotional connection, and in this case the negative emotions were considerable, Mr. Kerr said. "Madonna still has associations to this day emanating back from that." Pepsi was able to separate its brand from the controversy, however.
"Pepsi has a history of using relevant spokespeople to communicate to teens and young adults," Mr. Kerr said. "Given their strategy is to move on to the next big thing, I don't think their image suffered very much."
There are times when dropping a celebrity too hastily because of scandal can reflect badly on a brand, Mr. Adler said. Take Kellogg Co., which dropped its sponsorship deal with the American Olympic gold medalist after he was photographed inhaling from a bong and was suspended from swimming for three months. The move drew ridicule for Kellogg's and was panned on Saturday Night Live.
Other companies, including Subway restaurants and Visa Inc., stood behind Mr. Phelps. "They're a great example of not making a knee-jerk reaction," Mr. Adler said. "Subway had a campaign right about to launch. They just dialled it back, let the storm blow over, and then they launched."
But Mr. Phelps also did his job, Mr. Adler said, by managing his own image. When the photo was released, the athlete apologized for his mistakes before the story got out of control. "If you juxtaposition Phelps and Tiger ... Tiger let the story control him. Phelps was very humble, very contrite," Mr. Adlher said. "Tiger got some fundamentally bad PR advice - whoever told him to sit on this and ride it out."
There's no arguing with success. The Canadian snowboarder endured scandal when his gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, was yanked after he tested positive for marijuana. He got the medal back, arguing the drug traces in his blood came from second-hand smoke - and it would appear the court of public opinion forgave him. Canadians snapped up half a million red poor-boy hats like the one he was seen wearing at the Games. Roots Canada Ltd., which made the hats, made Mr. Rebagliati their spokesman and made him the star of the company's first television commercial, even after he had admitted inhaling the second-hand smoke, and smoking pot in the past.
Roots may not have had a lot to lose from the scandal. "Attitudes to drugs these days are more accepting than they ever have been," Mr. Kerr said, noting that this helped in Michael Phelps' case, which seems minor compared to offences like those plaguing Tiger Woods. "Although there was a negative buzz there ... it's not to the same depth."