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BW Businessworld

The Celebrity Culture

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Tiger Woods messed up, much to the delight of the international press it would seem. Ever since the sordid story came to light, media everywhere has gone into a tizzy analysing, re-analysing, blaming, speculating and digging up as much evidence as is possible to mar the erstwhile spotless public persona of Woods.

While the attention around the Woods controversy continues unabated, the incident can gave us a fresh perspective on the very notion and culture of ‘celebrity'. It is illuminating that the amount of media time and coverage spent on uncovering the Woods scandal is perhaps far greater, and certainly more frenzied, than the coverage the man received when he became the youngest winner of golf's four major championships or became the highest earner in the sport.

Culture And Celebrity
The phenomenon of ‘celebrity' is shared across borders. The imagination of every culture and nation is gripped by at least a few icons, often set in sharp relief from the ‘common man', for the fame (or infamity) they earn for their achievements. However, the way different cultures treat the famous often differs widely.

It would appear as if the American media is merciless about scandals involving celebrities. Public memory is littered with the transgressions of Britney Spears, Martha Stewart, O. J. Simpson, Chris Brown, Lindsay Lohan and many more. While it is possible that a few of these stage a comeback, it seems unlikely that the American media will allow them to completely forget the smears of past scandals.

In comparison, it would seem that the Indian media and people are more forgiving in treating stars involved in controversies. There are many celebrities who have fallen from grace in the eyes of the Indian public, but are still quite active in the public arena. Be it actors Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt or cricketers Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, all of them still occupy a legitimate, albeit tarnished, spot in the minds of the Indian public and media.

The media, of course, has a crucial role to play in the way we treat our celebrities. It acts as a mediator and filter for the information we know and receive about the famous, therefore playing a crucial role in how we perceive them.

It is evident that our media is evolving. With this change, our media too, especially the television news channels, have begun to treat all news as fair news — especially when it comes to celebrities. Be it Aishwarya Rai Bachchan marrying a tree or Aamir Khan's new haircut, it would seem that the boundaries between the personal and private lives of our celebrities, which were earlier sacrosanct, are now blurring quickly.

However, while misdemeanors certainly receive ample coverage, what is disturbing is that even small, human errors of judgement are amplified unnecessarily, putting tremendous pressure on the individuals concerned.

Be A Tiger?
The tension that media scrutiny puts on celebrities obviously also has significant ramifications for the brands they endorse. As media attention around the private and public lives of celebrities increases, it is perhaps time that brands also rethink their endorsement strategies, especially in terms of their position when it comes to defending an erring ambassador.

In the instance of Woods, brands including Gillette, Accenture and Gatorade, have chosen to distance or entirely disengage themselves from the sportsman after this scandal. However, some brands have decided to stand by him. Nike and Tag Heuer sent out statements earlier this week affirming their continued association with the golfer to be the individual they had signed on — a star sportsman who is undoubtedly the best in his field.

It is this perspective — identifying that the celebrity foremost embodies the values that essentially define his identity — which set a Nike and Tag Heuer apart from the rest in terms of the way they have managed their relationships with the celebrity. For these two brands, Woods remains foremost, a golfer, cushioning them from the impact of the scandal surrounding Woods, the man. On the other hand, Accenture, which placed him at the centre of its very brand identity by encouraging us to "Go ahead, be a Tiger", is now left red-faced.

It remains to be seen whether Woods returns to golf; however his stature as a great sportsman remains unquestioned.

The author is managing director and CEO of Mudra Group
bweditor at abp dot in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-12-2009)

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