The celebrity endorsement is a fixture in the world of marketing. And it is presumably an effective means of selling products, given the frequency with which sportspeople especially are paid appear on our screens to front for products.
Sometimes, the product is dubious: Sonny Bill would not be allowed to take the field had he consumed much of the caffeine-loaded energy drink he sells; Susan Devoy (vitamins) and Bob Charles (magnetic mattresses) both urge us to buy products whose real health benefits are very questionable indeed.
And sometimes, things really go titsup: Richard Long and Colin Meads have regretted spruiking for failed finance companies -- although probably not as much as the people who bought the finance companies' products.
Brian Edwards offered another take on the question a couple of years ago in a blog post entitled Brian's Law of Celebrity Endorsement, in which he drew on his own experience to declare that:
... the damage done to a public figure by product endorsement will be in direct proportion to that public figure’s standing in society or reputation for honesty and integrity.
Brian’s Law of Celebrity Endorsement means that the less you have to lose in terms of reputation, the less you will lose. While we may like people in the entertainment industry, for example, we tend not to hold them in particularly high regard. So “celebrities” can get away with endorsing products without our thinking any, or at least much less of them.
Meanwhile, if I were running an advertising agency I’d have my old friend Kevin Milne right at the top of my list of prospective product endorsers – consumer champion, impeccable credentials, high credibility, nice bloke, common touch. But if you do get the call, Kev, talk to me first. It isn’t worth it.
Well, Kev did get the call and he can't have talked to Brian, because he has loaned his reputation to a commercial advertiser. What emerged is almost a piece of anti-marketing, in which the former Fair Go host explains at some length -- the entire length of the commercial, actually -- how he determined that Carpet Mill was a company worthy of his reputation. He looked at the books, consulted the owner's wife -- even got on the booze with the staff!
Brian remains unimpressed with Kevin. So on Media7 this week, we'll bring the two Fair Go veterans together to discuss what it's okay to sell when your most valuable asset is your reputation.
In the same programme I'll interview lawyer and blogger Scott Yorke, who recently wrote a blazing post titled POAL's Useful Idiot, about the leaking -- somehow -- of personal, family and medical information about a Ports of Auckland worker who had been interviewed about the port dispute:
Whoever has leaked the information to the blogger has probably breached the Privacy Act. The fact that the person whose information was leaked was in the media making statements about his employer does not excuse any breach. There’s little point in anyone trying to argue that the leak was justified in order to counter what the worker said in the media. It is not a legal defence to the unauthorised release of personal information, and in any event it’s not especially clear how the information released counters anything said by the man. The man’s point is that he wants to keep his job and current conditions.
It’s less clear (to me anyway) whether the blogger concerned is also in breach of the Privacy Act for publishing the worker’s details, but I’m sure the thousands of media and privacy lawyers who routinely read my blog may have a view on that. The blogger probably hasn’t thought that far ahead, since his past actions would suggest he views himself as being above the law.
The blogger was, of course, Whale Oil. The irony is that the same blogger has declared he would make himself subject to a new media regulator along the lines proposed by the Law Commission -- and has previously even attempted to join the Press Council. He doesn't seem to be able to perceive the ethical gap between his aspirations and what he did, and does.
The mainstream news media have their own ways of finessing these issues. If Whale Oil publishes the scuttlebutt, they report on him doing so. Sorted.
A similar case is emerging this week. Fairfax's story about Browyn Pullar buries this right at the bottom:
Either ACC or Collins' office appears to have compounded the breach of privacy.
Details about Pullar were leaked from an email Boag sent to Collins.
The leak was likely to be another breach of the client's privacy because it is understood ACC had no authority to disclose any aspect of the woman's ACC claim to the media.
Media and privacy specialist lawyer Stephen Price said last night that, if the breach came from the minister's office or ACC, there would be good grounds for a complaint to be made to the privacy commissioner.
Pullar is clearly a more political actor than the port worker, Cecil Walker, and she may or may not have acted questionably herself. But it was probably a breach of her privacy to leak details from her email to journalists -- just as it probably was when minister Paula Bennett gave out personal information about solo mother Natasha Fuller. (That case was passed by the Privacy Commissioner to Robert Hesketh, commssioner of proceedings at the Human Rights Commission. In an odd twist late last year, the Prime Minister declared that Bennett was now the injured party after a document about the case was leaked to 3 News, apparently from within the commission.)
So where do we draw the line?
If you'd like to come along to tomorrow's Media7 recording, we'll need you, as ever, to present yourself at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ some time between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.