Part 2 of How to respond when an evil celebrity promotes your product

How to respnd when an evil celebrity promotes your productLast week I discussed the case of Tim Horton’s and how they responded, or rather failed to rise to the bait, when then-celebrity serial killer Karla Homolka plugged their Iced Capps on her release from jail. This week, we look at how Labbat’s didn’t learn that lesson when accused killer Luka Magnotta photo-endorsed their beer.

When an evil celebrity promotes your product

There was a lot of media fuss about Magnotta, who was arrested in 2012 in Berlin after a week-long, international manhunt to find the young man accused of killing Chinese student Lin Jun in Montreal, dismembering his corpse and mailing body parts to the offices of Canadian political parties. In one of the early stories about the international manhunt, The Montreal Gazette ran a photo of Magnotta posing with a bottle of Labatt Blue, which it took off his Facebook page. The product is front and centre in the image with its label and logo clearly visible.

So how did Labbat’s react to having a reputedly-evil guy shown with their product? Did they do as Timmy’s did and brush it off? Nope. They threatened to sue the Gazette if they didn’t take the photo down.

“As I am sure you can understand, this image is highly denigrating to our brand, and we are disturbed that this image remains on your site despite repeated requests and the many images available of this person,” Karyn Sullivan, Labatt’s associate general counsel, wrote in a letter to the Gazette.”

Not Labatt’s smartest move. Because the Globe and Mail got a hold of the letter and published the story. Then social media commenters got involved, and an entire hashtag thread, #newlabbatcampaign, made the beer brand look silly for demanding the Gazette pull the photo. Some examples:

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While Labbat was right to be worried about Magnotta being seen to endorse their brand, their reaction was over the top. Of course marketers know that celebrities being associated with your product can sell it, but that doesn’t mean it follows that evil people associated with your brand will kill it. Ooh, sorry, bad choice of words.

Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardiner explains why Labbat’s overreaction is so silly.

luka rocco magnotta - how not to respond when an evil celebrity promotes your product“Magnotta is a raging narcissist and so there are dozens and dozens of similar photos. For Blue to be endangered by Magnotta’s choice of beer, this particular photo would have to become the singular image of the man and the alleged crime…That was very unlikely. It’s just not that interesting, which is why most photo editors chose others and its only significant appearance was on the Gazette’s website. It’s a safe bet that it was going to slide into obscurity. But then Labatt threatened to sue.”

Media relations expert Anita Webster noted how this was not Labbat’s brightest moment.

“The beer-consuming public apparently thought no less of the brand despite it being Magnotta’s choice. No crisis. Yet by stepping in with a letter to the paper full of lawyerly language, Labatt created one…An important reminder to step back, see the issue in context and get things in perspective.”

Sometimes it pays to be the strong, silent type and wait these things out.

How to respond when an evil celebrity promotes your product, part 1

homolkaKarla Homolka is perhaps Canada’s most notorious serial killer, up there with her husband Paul Bernardo and Cliff Olsen. The sweetheart deal she cut with prosecutors saw her serve just 12 years before being released from jail. When she got out, she gave one interview, to a French TV station in Quebec. And they asked her, what is the first thing you plan to do now that you’re free.

Her answer no doubt gave the execs at Tim Hortons heart palpitations.

iced capp
Interviewer: And what will be the first thing that you’d like to do?

Homolka: This is stupid. I’d like to have an iced cappuccino. An iced cappuccino from Tim Hortons, that’s what I’d like to do.

So what did Tim Horton’s do to distance themselves from the blond serial killer? Um, nothing much, really. They did make a brief statement, but only to say that Homolka’s remarks in the French-only interview won’t have any impact on sales.

“We know our customers differentiate our company and the relationship from her comments. And we have faith they can make that distinction.”

And given that the company has been on a huge growth curve in the past decade, and has continued to win hearts and minds of Canadians as a national icon, I think they were right. And I think they were right to keep their reaction muted and in context. Going too far in distancing themselves would likely have boomeranged back in a bad way.

Of course, that happened in 2005, before the days of mobile devices and social media. It might have gone differently if this happened today.