Why Ms Johansson's sponsorship trouble may be a cautionary tale for other celebs
Published 03/02/2014 | 02:30
SODASTREAM'S celebrity-led Superbowl ad slot should have been the stuff of endorsement dreams. But since Scarlett Johansson was announced as the new global brand ambassador for the homey fizzy drinks brand in early January, the response has been, on the surface, more like a nightmare.
Never was the saying "you can't be all things to all people" truer than in the case of Johansson and the Oxfam/SodaStream debacle. So in a mess of contracts, accusations, statements and resignations, who gained most from the media's glare and who lost face?
Signing ScarJo has certainly paid off for SodaStream in terms of column inches and brand awareness – even if the attention comes from criticism of the company by pro-Palestinian activists for operating a factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
In raising its profile with a big-name celebrity endorsement and punchy Superbowl advert, the drinks brand has inserted itself into a high-brow conversation, with a star player in tow.
Johansson responded to the condemnation of SodaStream International's industrial activity in the region by claiming that she is a "supporter of economic co-operation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine".
Oxfam International quickly made its concerns public about a conflict between their spokeswoman's commitment to its mission and her commercial contract with a company defying its mandate. The liberal, politically active, Jewish-American actress found herself between a rock and a hard place as Oxfam called for her to get in line. In a shock move, Johansson stepped down from her humanitarian position.
A statement claiming "a fundamental difference of opinion" with what she referred to as Oxfam International's policy of "boycott, divestment and sanctions" did little to blur the optics of the situation.
In claiming that this iconic do-good organisation has the wrong end of the stick as to the significance of SodaStream's industrial presence in the West Bank, she has all but fed her integrity to the lions.
It is easy to point the finger at her for what seems to be choosing a paid ambassadorship over a not-for-profit role. However, one should consider that Johansson's hand was forced from both sides. Breaking an iron-clad commercial contract might be good for press, but could ruin her financially. And if she really was not in a position to walk away from SodaStream, it is likely that Oxfam gave her the opportunity to resign in the face of being fired.
Though Johansson and Oxfam seemed to have washed their statements with mutual appreciation, there was an air of back-handed compliments in the termination of the partnership. Oxfam will easily find another famous face, but how much did Johansson rely on her squeaky-clean humanitarian profile?
There was a time when a star lending their face to a commercial product was considered a sell-out. Before the internet, Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Arnold Schwarzenegger could endorse products to foreign markets without advertisements ever being seen in America – sometimes under a secrecy clause.
In 2014, a celebrity's good name is as important to maintaining a fan base as assuring corporate marketers that they are a safe bet. Charitable work and cause backing are sure-fire image boosters.
Whether her hands were contractually tied or she truly believes in SodaStream's ability to change the world, Johansson will be hard-pressed to eradicate the impression that she's driven by the mighty dollar. So who wins, and who loses?
By the PR theory that even bad press is good press, SodaStream has reinstated itself as a household name overnight – albeit under less-than-desirable circumstances. Oxfam has bolstered its reputation as a non-profit in drawing a line in the sand with the corporate world. But siding with the power of capitalism might just result in ScarJo's stock falling.
It remains to be seen if, in selling her image to SodaStream without properly calculating the risk, Johansson may be the one who has lost face. This fiasco may well be a cautionary tale to celebrities and brands considering crossing the streams of humanitarian work and commercial product endorsement.
At the end of the day, the public will either be endeared by the combination of Johansson's sexpot image and well-crafted statement or completely turned off by what seems to be an act of turncoatery – whether it is an optical illusion or not.
How ironic that Johansson's critical breakthrough role was in a movie based around an actor being paid millions of dollars to appear in a whisky advertisement in Japan, given that her convictions are perhaps currently being 'lost in translation'.