On Kobe Bryant, Advertising, and Public Opinion (CA)

Matthew DonatoCorrespondent IJune 6, 2008

(Editor's Note: I understand that this is a bit of an old story, but I was assigned to write it for a communications class, addressing public opinion and media effects on news. It is also a touch more serious and to the point, but it has to do with sports, so I'm sure you will enjoy it anyways. From now on, if the post is a class assignment, I will indicate it in the title with an (CA). It's not that they are bad, (There is a grade riding on them), but it will help to answer the inevitable question, "Why the hell did he write about this?" Enjoy.)

Yesterday, my ESPN the magazine came in the mail. The cover itself was a fold-out, in order to showcase the advertisement for Glaceau Vitamin Water on the inside.

Some of the brightest stars in the NBA were featured, including Tracy McGrady and LeBron James, in individual still shots, playing basketball at night in an open downtown court. To the far left of the advertisement, the first person you see when you open the three page spread completely, in the stance made famous by Jerry West as the symbol of the NBA, was Kobe Bryant.

Kobe is still among the advertising elite in the world of sports, even though it was less than five years ago that he was accused of sexual assault in a Colorado hotel. Of the major sponsorships that Kobe had at the time of the accusation, only two, McDonalds and Nutella, officially dropped him from their advertising campaign, although no company he endorsed ran an ad of his again until 2005.

In 2007, according to Forbes, Kobe made 20.9 million dollars in advertising alone. That is 1,409,375 dollars more than he made playing basketball for the 2007-2008 season. Kobe has remained a highly sought after spokesman, and a cultural phenomenon, and rightly so.

Before the incident between Bryant and Katelyn Faber at the Lodge and Spa Cordillera on June 30th of 2003, Bryant had a squeaky clean off court image. He had played for seven years in the NBA, and was one of the league's brightest stars, having been an NBA All-Star five times, named to the league's All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team twice each and had won three NBA titles.

The culture shock that came from the accusation, as well as Bryant's large national profile made the story front page news, and soon, people who didn't even follow basketball became very familiar with Bryant.

Kobe admitted to having an extramarital sexual encounter with with Faber, but claimed it was completely consensual and that he had done nothing illegal. Faber claimed that she had been raped in Bryant's hotel room by the accused.

Although Coca-Cola quickly signed LeBron James in the summer of 2003 to continue its basketball directed Sprite advertisements and take some of the immediate attention off of Bryant, Kobe was not immediately dropped from the contract. Advertisers wanted to see how the accusation and trial would play out before making any final decisions about Bryant's advertising future.

Later though, according to the Hip-Hop News, the Coca-Cola Company did release Bryant from its contract, although they said it had nothing to do with the incident, but that the company wanted to take their advertising in another direction.

McDonalds, at the time, was directing their advertising at women, featuring their new salad selections, as well as fruit available instead of french fries. The advertising executives at McDonalds felt that the image of Kobe Bryant would, at the time of the trial, undermine the positives that women were expected to see in the changes at McDonalds, and felt obligated to drop him from their celebrity endorsements.

Nutella, which signed Kobe for it's largest advertising campaign since it started selling in the United States in 1983, simply did not re-sign him. No explanation was found as to why the company let him go, but it can be easily speculated that legal troubles for a global spokesman would be a huge risk for a small company.

Since Bryant's other endorsement deals were all sports related, including Upper Deck, Spalding, and Nike, each of those companies were receiving free publicity while waiting for more information to come out. It is often said that any publicity is good publicity, and Bryant was getting much more free air time on television because of the accusation. Many felt that, if he was acquitted, he would emerge with a much higher Q rating, and therefore be that much better for business.

The other aspect that these companies had to take into consideration was Bryant's on court performance. If he faltered on the court from this distraction and the trial had gone against him, it would have been worse than just the poor outcome at the trial. Kobe succeeded on the court when the season resumed, and along with the acquittal, the advertising companies found no reason to drop him.

The most important thing for Bryant was that he was not seen as guilty in the court of public opinion, which, when it comes to one's career, can carry the most damaging outcomes. The public took into account the semen and pubic hair of another man on Faber's underwear from the rape kit, as well as her recent suicide attempts and drug use, and weighed this against what they knew of Bryant from his life in the public eye.

They also heard Bryant's apology, where he admitted to the engagement, and even though he still insists that he thought it was consensual, he claimed “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” The apology and evidence both steered the public to believe that although Bryant had made a choice that was far from morally sound, what he did was not illegal, and all that was left for him was to settle the issue with his wife, Vanessa.

Mrs. Bryant stayed by Kobe's side during the trial and firmly insisted that he was innocent. When Bryant was acquitted, he symbolized his apology to her with an 8 carat purple diamond ring. Vanessa's support and Kobe's symbolic apology convinced much of the public that the incident was behind the couple, and that if they could move on, so could they.

Public opinion has ruined many careers, even if it was proven that they did not commit the acts they were accused of. Bryant's case is similar to that of silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle's, except that the public didn't completely turn on Bryant from the start. The public was so certain that Arbuckle was guilty of rape and manslaughter of a young aspiring actress at a party, due to rumors and newspaper stories, that his movie career was ruined, even though the evidence against him was so weak that his not guilty verdict after two mistrials came with apologies from the jurors.

Arbuckle's movies were banned, his reputation was destroyed, even though he was seen as one of the greatest comedians in Hollywood before the incident, and his life was never the same. A crime that he was not guilty of was hung over him until he died at the age of 46. The same tragedy could have befallen Bryant, but he was lucky enough to have all the right cards when he needed them: a clean personal life before the accusation, weak evidence against him, a discredited accuser, and public sympathy.

It is a longstanding legend in the athletic community that there are women who will do whatever they can to become pregnant by a rich athlete so that they can collect money to raise the child in luxury, or to file a false rape case against one in order to collect a settlement to keep the claim quiet.

That is not to suggest that some sort of scheme was set in place by Katelyn Faber in this case. Kobe himself said in his apology, “I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman.”, but many members of the public could see a simple monetary motive behind a false statement against someone like Kobe, and use it in their own defense for him.

When the trial had ended, Kobe Bryant looked to the public like the more credible of the two sides. This especially after rumors spread that Katelyn Faber had entered a cocaine rehab clinic, where she met her current husband. (I have absolutely no proof to back that last statement up, and there is a good chance that that story was filled with untruths. It was found in the tabloid “The Globe”. I only mention this because there are people out there who form their allow their opinions to be influenced by tabloids, even though they are backed with absolutely no credibility.)

With his career running smoothly with the Lakers, it was just a matter of time before Kobe would be featured in advertisements again. Nike began to use him in commercials in 2005, and he has been in advertisements regularly again ever since.

The biggest stories for Kobe this season have been his trade demand at the beginning of the year and his team being the leading Western Conference contender for the NBA Title. Years ago, it was the feud between himself, Shaquille O'Neil, and Phil Jackson. Before that, it was speculation over whether he would take the reigns as the next Michael Jordan.

Kobe is often found at the center of speculation by the public, and public opinion determines whether products he endorses will be well received or not. Kobe is back on America's advertisements because America's public has forgiven him of the actions they believe he did, and has accepted him as the person they believe that he is.

He has been acquitted of his crime, and has appeared to have resolved the consequences of his actions with his family, and the public has granted him permission to resume his career as a product endorser, as he rightfully deserves.