This is a story about Rice in hot water and a timely swipe by a fat cat. Maybe I’m mired back in the 20th Century, but I wasn’t about to buy a luxury car based on some 22-year-old’s endorsement anyway. Not even a 22-year-old alleged homophobic tweeter (or is that Twitterer?) who can swim.
In case you haven’t heard, this relates to a recent media snafu. Three-time 2008 Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Rice, OAM, made this careless tweet: “Suck on that faggots” in the heat of the moment shortly after Australia’s Wallabies ultimately triumphed over South Africa’s Springboks in Bioemfontein recently, winning in a nail-bitingly close 41-39 game.
Ms Rice is – or rather, was, until very shortly after that ‘f-tweet’ – a Jaguar ambassador, who spent time gadding about the place in a luxury XF in an unspecified ambassadorial role, the terms of doing which are undisclosed. Jaguar terminated the seven-month arrangement in response to the now-infamous Rice-“faggots” tweet.
Frankly, I didn’t care whether Ms Rice was or wasn’t a Jaguar ambassador then, and I don’t care that she is no longer is one now. My view is that anyone convinced to buy Brand X (and we’re not just talking cars here) because of the perceived association with a celebrity or sporting champion is just ever so slightly too shallow to warrant the air they breathe. I’m especially embarrassed to be in the same gene pool as anyone motivated by celebrity endorsement.
Let’s look at it like this. You might buy an Omega Speedmaster Professional wristwatch because you just fall in love with it. I get that. It’s a beautiful device. Big tick. You might buy one because of what it represents (it’s the watch Neil Armstrong wore when he stepped onto the Lunar surface). I get that, too. Greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century. Big tick. And you might buy it because George Clooney wears one: Fail, in that case, in my view.
Of course, Ms Rice’s tweet may have caused direct offence to some few homosexuals following her on Twitter. I have some sympathy for these people. So does Ms Rice, apparently. She apologised with apparent sincerity and without reservation. End of story. Except it isn’t.
It offended me that her tweet was borderline illiterate, and I didn’t get an apology. “Faggot” slurs and illiteracy are different things. You can bet she’d still be driving that shiny new XF if she’d only managed to offend people who punctuate…
Of course, the media magnified the publicity of Ms Rice’s tweet by several thousands of orders of magnitude – I mean, you could count on one hand the number of tweets that make the front few pages of a major metro daily newspaper in any given week. Or talkback radio. In a sense, the mass media coverage of the Rice-“faggots” tweet was a big-time PR ‘own goal’.
However, if you were offended by that subsequent media coverage, you’re probably better off taking your offence up with the news agencies that milked it for all it was worth. Especially if you’re not actually gay, but you just really like to be offended. Like 50 per cent of outraged talkback radio callers.
Jaguar ditched Ms Rice in a heartbeat as a result of the ‘f-tweet’. But hang on a sec – isn’t PR, and aren’t ambassador programs, about raising the brand’s profile? If it is, then you can bet that many more people found out about Ms Rice and her association with Jaguar as a result of that tweet and its subsequent media coverage than from any other Jaguar-approved Rice initiative. Or maybe it was terminating Ms Rice’s ambassadorship that generated the publicity. Any way you cut this up, however, the Rice-“faggots” tweet was the single biggest Jaguar profile raiser in Ms Rice’s game – and it’s hardly as if she brought the brand into disrepute. Herself, maybe, but the leaper stayed neutral in all of this, surely? To be blunt, this event (ie the tweet, the termination and the media frenzy that flowed from it) was one of the most successful Jaguar brand awareness campaigns of recent months.
Jaguar is playing an elite game in an elite segment against some elite competition – principally Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. In the past decade, Ze Chermans (and I really hope that’s not a racial slur because it’s not intended to be one) have grown their Australian sales by 275 per cent, 78 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. In the same period, according to Vfacts, Jaguar sales here have stagnated and are currently running at about one-twentieth of Mercedes-Benz’s sales, and about one-tenth of Audi’s – and yet Jaguar has clearly for the past week enjoyed the highest public profile. And they say ambassadors are worthless…
Some allege Ms Rice’s comments were homophobic. Don’t you think that’s taking it a bit too far? Let’s look at some other unacceptable behaviours. Take theft: to qualify as a thief, you have to first intend to steal something (in law they call this mens rea, which is Latin roughly for ‘criminal intent’ – literally it means ‘evil mind’). So a baby can’t steal something from a shop even if it grabs that lollipop and carries it through the checkout under its blanket. Likewise, there are mens rea-type tests for the commission of other offences.
If we take that test and apply it to the ‘f-tweet’, it’s not at all homophobic. Did she intend to offend homosexuals with that tweet? Almost certainly not. Did she intend to dismiss the Springboks as losers? Almost certainly. She’s 22. And an athlete. A champion. I’m tipping it’s no cakewalk being a Olympic-champion swimmer. Not too much sitting around in circles singing kum-bah-ya and holding hands. Lots of toughing it out, and lots of being tough on yourself, as well as developing somewhat thick skin. Being able to dish it out, and take it. Being schooled continuously that victory for Australia is everything. The rules are clearly different for celebrities, but I wonder how many people in this country did many things they consider to be worse than use the word ‘faggot’ ill-advisedly between the ages of 18 and 24? I know I did.
“Suck on that, faggots,” (note the comma, Steph) is the kind of thing that gets shouted out at football matches right across the country every weekend. You might not like it, but it’s just the way things are. It’s a slur, sure, but let’s all grow thick skin here. Sticks and stones, surely. Because you can bet some hyper-gay, high-profile ambassador tweeting “Suck on that, breeders” would still be driving the luxury car the next week. Maybe even the next model up.
Jaguar spokesman Mark Eedle told the media the company had terminated its involvement with Ms Rice and would take back the XF. “It’s to do with how we want to associate our brand and unfortunately this … is not an association we want to have going forward.” Apart from the fact that “going forward” is the literary equivalent of a crime against humanity, Jaguar is clearly free to do that – but you have to wonder if the company isn’t effectively biting the hand that just fed it all those front-end news pages, and all those minutes of prime airtime. (In all that exposure the Jaguar brand itself remained, at worst, neutral.)
You have to wonder if terminating Ms Rice wasn’t the real act of PR genius here. Ms Rice reportedly earns something in the order of $800,000 annually from similar commercial arrangements with Davenport, SunRice, Speedo and Telstra. So let’s not worry too hard about where the next meal will be coming from in the Rice household. Or whether she’ll be okay for socks and jocks, or whether the telephone will be disconnected.
However, you can bet the brand on everyone’s lips in the foreseeable future when people say ‘Stephanie Rice’ won’t be Davenport, Speedo, SunRice or Telstra. In a sense, terminating Ms Rice secured Jaguar’s ongoing association with the swimmer, and its publicity, far more effectively than keeping her on board. At least in the medium term. In Jaguar-profile-raising terms it was a brilliantly ballistic PR move.
Of course, ‘going forward’ isn’t the only part of the Rice / Jaguar relationship Jaguar is apparently trying to erase. The company has, at the time of writing, removed from its website most of the references I could find to its relationship with Ms Rice when things were going smoothly. Including this one, which was formerly a news release detailing how pleased Jaguar was to have Stephanie Rice, OAM, finally on board. It’s now a ‘404-page not found’ error.
There are some parallels here to the case of a motoring journalist colleague named Rod Easdown who, while working for the Financial Review newspaper, got busted by the cops at the wheel of a Ferrari California doing 231km/h in a 110km/h zone in the WA wheat belt. It’s another example of bad PR being the best PR money can buy. Mr Easdown was arrested, and the $470,000 car was impounded under the WA anti-hoon laws for seven days. Serious stuff … especially if you’re the one stuffed in the back of the police car and looking down the barrel of your career evaporating and a potential lawsuit you can’t jump over.
When I interviewed Mr Easdown after his court case was heard, he told me that one of his significant fears shortly after his arrest was that the Ferrari importer in Australia, Ateco Automotive, was going to sue him for lost business and possibly even for damage to its reputation that flowed from the event.
It never happened – in fact, although 14 months almost to the day have elapsed since Mr Easdown was pinged at warp speed, the Easdown-231km/h ‘fine mess’ has proved to be Ferrari’s single biggest PR goal in the general news domain in this country. Mr Easdown’s behaviour was widely dismissed as irresponsible. (I remember getting a phone call from a producer at Media Watch, who put it to me that motoring journalists drove like that all the time. “Yeah, we do,” I said. “In Germany. On the Autobahn. At every opportunity.”) He was fined a few thousand dollars, lost his license for six months and lost his main job. But the California in particular and Ferrari in general was never once to my knowledge the subject of critical or negative comment. And its profile was raised considerably. It went from the ‘chip-wrapper’ motoring supplement in the middle of the paper to the front pages – the kind of coup a PR manager would normally lust after and yet fail, over and over, to achieve.
Companies think they need ambassadors, and the media. Sometimes, however, they really don’t like what we do. And this is a problem because, in the boardroom of a prestige brand, influencing public opinion is as serious as life and death.