What does it mean that a corporate sponsor wants to disassociate from a tarnished utility sport vehicle (i.e., player, team, stadium, league, etc)? And is it the same for a sponsor wanting to appear as though it wants to disassociate from a tarnished USV? I hope not! But, one must remember that the primary business of the sponsor is to sell its product by promoting its brand. Except when a corporation supports social causes anonymously (look, a unicorn!), corporate sponsorship, like all advertising, is meant to build the brand and sell the product, now and for generations to come.
Same goes for the company’s PR campaigns in response to news that impacts the company and any agent with whom it is associated. In fact, it turns out these PR reactions can be a terrific podium from which to broadcast pious statements about the company’s moral code. It’s not cynical, just business, to restate that the primary motivation is to protect, if not build, the brand.
The question for the Pew Research Center and its ilk is whether the moralizing spin, the disapproving wags of the finger, the rallying of special interest groups, or, rare as it may be (see: Nike, Tiger), actual retraction of endorsement, matters to the bottom line. Do people actually stop buying stretchy briefs when Under Armour underperforms in 1st Quarter finger wagging about one of its rogue Ravens? (Especially if, by the 4th Quarter no one remembers what the issue was?) Has Pew done studies to show that a significant number of consumers will UnLike the company’s Facebook page if real action is not taken? Probably, and the results are referred to at Corp HQ in biblical terms.
So let’s just assume that the corporate sponsors know they can’t really lose; either they luck out and their USV makes them look good, or, when it fails, they can turn on it and make themselves look good. But who else wins? All of us! Queue the Pastorale.
Society wins because to stave off potential brand blemishes corporations are compelled to make public statements about what is right (Pew et al., 2014, 2013, 2012….the beginning of time), and these pronouncements seem to get a lot of air time. So, whether it is via smartphone, laptop, newspaper (ha!), or TV (ha! ha!), the cycle goes something like this:
1. Bad behavior goes viral (everyone except the condemned seems to win in the re-Twister).
2. The media deliver waves of specialists, if not special interests, to debate the specific breakdown in the social fiber.
3. Everyone who could be* tarnished by the bogey rallies to clear their name (brand), including copious Monday morning QB activity and expertly prepared righteous PR pronouncements.
4. The issue – whether it is domestic violence, child abuse, doping, bad spelling – is put on the very public table, discussed openly, clarified, and rules are either reiterated or made more relevant to the times. Issues that so many people previously battled silently, alone, or against outdated public notions or policies are made visible and advanced in the glaring light of their 15 minutes of worldwide attention. Specialisterest groups are heard, policies improve, society advances.
And, this being sports, kids are watching.
I call that a net win.
* the meaning of the words “could be” in this sentence are important, because this whole cycle usually hinges on the degree to which the bad behavior becomes “news”, i.e., extends its reach beyond niche sports fans to a broader population of consumers. For example, much of the criticism of authorities involved in the Ray Rice situation (if you can remember as far back as yesterday) was that they didn’t appear to act until the bad behavior became news. So, I guess this is a positive impact of social media enabling things like this to “go viral”.