Skip to main content

Beauty and the Pitfalls of the Celebrity Deal

Over the past few days alone, the Internet has lit up about Johnny Depp and Dior, and Lancôme and Denise Ho.

PARIS — Johnny Depp and Chinese singer and actress Denise Ho show that celebrity tie-ins for beauty brands can be a bane as well as a boon.

The furor over Lancôme’s association with Ho, a known supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, continued to grow Wednesday when the actress herself criticized the brand.

“I am quite shocked that a global brand such as Lancôme [would succumb to] the pressure from Chinese tabloid news or the Chinese market,” Ho said in an interview with the BBC, adding that Hong Kong celebrities are feeling fearful about speaking out on their views in a climate marked by tense relations between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The L’Oréal-owned brand faces threats of boycott and backlash in Hong Kong and mainland China over its association with Ho, who was slated to perform at an event sponsored by Lancôme on June 16.

On Saturday, Chinese state-backed newspaper Global Times posted a message on Sina Weibo that sparked thousands of negative responses on the social-media platform about Ho’s connection to the brand. Subsequently, Lancôme Hong Kong posted messages on its Facebook account stating that Ho is not a spokeswoman for the company and canceled the event, citing “safety reasons.”

You May Also Like

Panpan Au wrote on the platform: “Obviously Lancôme as a company do not care for the Chinese market…why would any Chinese support Lancôme… when Lancôme is supporting (con)artist like hocc? [sic] #neveruselancomeagain.”

Leely Ngim added: “There are so many products in the market. From now on, I’m not going to buy any of your product.”

Some went even further than simply venting on social media. On Wednesday, dozens of protesters and a group of pro-democracy politicians gathered outside Times Square mall in Hong Kong to protest Lancôme’s cancellation of the concert, according to the South China Morning Post. According to news reports, all of Lancôme’s counters throughout the city were shuttered and Times Square counters for other L’Oréal brands such as Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, Helena Rubinstein and Shu Uemura were closed. One photo published in the South China Morning Post showed the Lancôme Times Square counter plastered with signs bearing phrases like “Boycott! L’Oréal Paris No to Self-Censorship!” and “Kowtow to Beijing” with an X over it.

L’Oréal’s retail operations in Hong Kong appeared to be open and running again on Thursday.

Spokeswomen from Lancôme Hong Kong and L’Oréal in Paris declined to provide further comments beyond Lancôme’s Facebook statements.

But Lancôme isn’t alone when it comes to controversy. Dior is finding its relationship with Depp under scrutiny after domestic abuse allegations launched by Amber Heard, his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Depp, who is the face of Dior’s Sauvage scent, has denied Heard’s allegations.

Nonetheless, Twitter erupted with chatter, and opinion, when the Depp news broke.

“Surprised @Dior didn’t pull their #johnnydepp #sauvage ads” wrote Laurent Zinn, regarding Heard’s allegations.

“Um. Just saw the Johnny Depp/Dior #sauvage poster and talk about poor timing in light of recent events,” added Craven Maven.

“There’s a bit of irony here #Dior #Sauvage or #Savage?” wrote JP of Tarth, who accompanied the tweet with a photo of the still advertisement showing Depp rolling up his sleeve.

Women’s groups have also pushed back against Dior.

“If the allegations were proven to be true, we would hope that a responsible fashion house would indeed stop working with a perpetrator of domestic abuse,” said a spokeswoman from Women’s Aid, a charity organization in the U.K.

“The allegations of domestic abuse against Johnny Depp are extremely serious. If they are found to be true, we hope that he faces the consequences of his actions as any other perpetrator should have to — regardless of the fact that he is wealthy, powerful and famous,” said Polly Neate, chief executive officer of Women’s Aid.

“As I have stated before, the ‘hero culture’ that can surround famous men should not distort our reactions to abusive actions,” she continued.

Dior could not immediately be reached for comment.

At least Dior and Lancôme can take comfort in the fact that it isn’t only beauty brands having problems with their celebrity tie-ins. Nike said Wednesday it would continue to stand by Maria Sharapova even though the Russian tennis star has been banned from the sport for two years by the International Tennis Federation for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, meldonium.

A Nike spokesman said Wednesday: “The ITF Tribunal has found that Maria did not intentionally break its rules. Maria has always made her position clear, has apologized for her mistake and is appealing the length of the ban. Based on the decision of the ITF and their factual findings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her.”

Whether NetJets and other companies that have endorsement deals stand with Sharapova remains to be seen. With $20 million in endorsement deals and $1.9 million in salary and winnings, Sharapova ranked 88th on this year’s Forbes list for the World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.

The stances of Lancôme and Nike show the approaches brands can take when their celebrity tie-ins blow up in their faces.

“Most brands will do a quick analysis of whether the celebrity is bigger than the scandal,” said Louise Rosen, founder and ceo of The Message Inc., a Paris-based consultancy for luxury brands. “Being seen as fair is vital. Fair-weather friends make bad friends, and a brand should never been seen as a bad friend. Due process is therefore essential before any decisive action.”

 Yet information — and judgments — travel at lightning speed today when everyone, everywhere has a voice thanks to social media.

“In this hyper-transparent, digital age, it’s very difficult to have any control as a brand,” noted Lucie Greene, worldwide director of The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson. “Celebrities are sharing on social media channels in a way that they didn’t necessarily before — as are brands themselves now — and vocalizing opinions in a way that is difficult for a beauty brand to control beyond tightly mediated press junkets.”

Information about celebrities is among the most shared and viewed content on the Internet, amplifying the potential backlash in the case of a transgression.

“There’s a volume of output, and then if that gets attention, it spreads incredibly fast and is outside what the brand is sharing, which can be great — if it’s positive for the brand. But it’s also negative — if it’s controversial,” Greene explained.

The Depp situation does not mark the first time a Dior face has stirred up controversy. In 2008, its then-ambassador Sharon Stone during the Cannes Film Festival said “the Chinese” had been unkind to Tibetans, and that the devastating Sichuan earthquake may have been karmic retribution for China. As a result, Dior immediately withdrew in China advertising and marketing and commercial activities featuring the actress for select cosmetics product lines.

In another highly media-tized situation, Kate Moss in 2005 was immediately cut loose by fashion advertisers such as Burberry and Hennes & Mauritz, while Rimmel stood by her, after a photo in the London Daily Mirror allegedly showed her doing lines of cocaine. But Moss’ mea culpa and rehab stint prompted a quick re-embrace by the fashion world.

Rosen said she believes that despite the media hubbub surrounding a celebrity-related crisis, most brands can withstand a little association with a “bad boy or girl.”

“Signing a model doesn’t mean you endorse everything they do,” she said. “Most international brands have had to accept the fickle nature of social-media love, and the equally short cycle of the media surge.”

Yet times are changing in regard to who fronts a brand and how it’s done.

“I think the era of celebrity endorsements is in flux in general, because the consumer knows the relationship is somewhat transactional — so it seems less authentic,” said Greene. “Also, our relationships with celebrities are changing, particularly when you look at Millennials and Generation Zs. If Millennials loved reality TV stars, Generation Z has gone a stage further.

“They see themselves as brands and content creators, whether it’s on YouTube or Instagram or Snapchat, and seek peerlike celebrities that have grassroots followings on these mediums or want to be celebrities/brands themselves,” she continued. “They’re also very brand-critical of being over-marketed to, and the much-vaunted influencers — the new celebrities — from this group are cautious of being too branded or endorsed for this reason, because it alienates their fan base.”

Greene noted Generation Z online influencers share unfettered, real, quirky imagery, which is different from the glossy, airbrushed images of big-name celebrities that brands tend to use today.

“Look at Gen Z influencers Miley Cyrus, Belle Throne, Willow Smith, Cara Delevingne or Cameron Dallas, and the images are often silly. They’re often pulling silly faces, calling out causes, performing to the camera,” said Greene. “It’s a radical departure to the kind of visual language and conservative, sparkle-bedecked approach we’re used to seeing from blue-chip beauty brands.”

She deems the best celebrity tie-ups are those with an attitudinal synergy in execution, such as Chanel using Kristen Stewart to front its eye makeup.

“They celebrated her personal style in images, which is somewhat grungy, rather than trying to make her too polished,” said Greene.