When PepsiCo announced a marketing campaign earlier this year that involved plastering Michael Jackson's silhouette on a billion Pepsi cans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Bad album, some wondered if celebrity endorsement might have run off the rails. After all, Jackson was dead and not drinking much soda.
But there was an upside to this as well – despite the controversies that followed him in life, Jackson was no longer in a position to heap unexpected embarrassment on Pepsi through fresh words and actions.
Living celebs can do more damage – as Nike and other backers of Lance Armstrong found out recently.
Now, Macy's, the world's largest department store chain, is also finding out the hard way how celeb alliances can have a nasty sting in the tail. And the implications go deeper than just celebrity endorsement – they run to the heart of the identity crisis that is plaguing department stores everywhere.
Macy's immediate problem lies in the cantankerous persona of 66-year-old Donald Trump, whose signature line of suits, shirts, ties and fragrances have helped drive improved sales performance at the chain in recent months. Now, Macy's is on the receiving end of a petition to end its relationship with the Donald. The petition accuses Macy's of being socially irresponsible and already reportedly has 500,000 signatures.
Trump, a constant presence in the Twittersphere, has been running his mouth off in ways that many consider to be inappropriate and ridiculous. He has ranted, among other things, about global warming being a Chinese conspiracy and of Obama not being born in the US. After the election he was at it again, claiming that Obama's victory was a sham and an injustice and advocating that people march on Washington to protest.
Seemingly oblivious to Trump's divisiveness, Macy's has aired a video ad called Another Miracle on 34th Street in which Trump tugs at Santa's beard in the retailer's New York flagship store to prove that he isn't real. This has been seen as an attempt by the retailer to cash in on Trump's irrational obsession about the president's true country of origin.
Whether or not Macy's decides to cut Trump loose, the controversy hoists into full public view the broader problem of what department stores actually represent.
Department stores have been around for so long they have become identified with a past generation of shoppers that is dying out. They are venerated as a shopping icon by many older citizens but have fought hard to demonstrate continuing relevance among younger shoppers. In the retail industry's zoo they want to be its cheetahs, not its armadillos or its ostriches.
Unfortunately, identifying with people like Trump plays right into the armadillo stigma. It might help sell ties to ageing and stridently unenlightened white males, but it will not help them with the younger generation of shoppers they so badly need to be on their side.
In trying to reverse the steady loss of market share they have experienced for many years in just about every developed country you can name, department stores are now fighting their own extinction by trying to appeal to millennials with more contemporary brands and greater use of technology.
So much so that a broader cross-generational appeal has become one of the department store industry's biggest conceits - witness the hype David Jones is creating just by putting up a functional website.
But the problem for department stores and for any retailer that tries to have mass appeal is that it becomes impossible to define a clear point of view. You end up standing for nothing. Mass appeal or standing for something – it's rare you can have it both ways.
Global retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara and Victoria's Secret know this only too well. They sometimes annoy the hell out of whole segments of the consumer market in order to appeal more to the people they are really targeting.
Department stores are still playing monkey in the middle. They want to look hip but they are still aligning themselves with dinosaurs. Their very survival may depend on how well they are being able to resolve the conflict.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.mbaker-retail.com.