Somewhere Anthony Bourdain is smiling, a vindicated man. A recovered junkie and ex-smoker, the No Reservations host would not be a man to gloat about serious health consequences suffered as a result of hazardous self-inflicted behavior, but he must be gratified that the cosmos (and the blogosphere) finally got something right and corrected a misconception.
In my office, I am gagging, a disgusted woman. A twenty year veteran in the PR trenches of the pharmaceutical industry, my mission in life is to find and match appropriate and credible celebrity spokespersons who suffer from health issues in real life with pharma products and medications that can cure or ameliorate them. I’ve struggled with the decision to write about this topic since it has been fairly exhausted in the media but given celebrity/pharma endorsements are in fact, what I do all day, every day, I concluded I had to at least document my view for the record.
In all my years on this beat I have never seen a bungling of a celebrity campaign as the depraved Paula Deen roll-out for Victoza, Novo Nordisk’s diabetes drug, nor have I seen a bigger rat dropped at the feet of the pharma and PR industries as a result of this baleful and ill-timed partnership.
On the January 16 Today Show, Food Network star Paula Deen stumbled out of the Type 2 Diabetes closet three years after her diagnosis and then immediately revealed that she’d inked a deal with a “very reputable pharmaceutical company.” The little ole coinkidink of the admission of Paula’s health status coming on the same day her wallet gained a few million pounds was not lost on the public. The news caused a storm of controversy. Outrage over Paula’s hypocrisy was fast and furious, especially from fellow diabetics, who criticized Deen, the patron saint of the deep fryer, for promoting the kind of fat-rich, sugar-loaded, carb-heavy diet that is associated with Type 2 Diabetes. How could a person continue to advocate, through her highly successful cooking shows, the execution and consumption of recipes not just unhealthy to diabetics, but potentially deadly to them? Skillet fried apple pie? Cheesy ham and banana casserole?
Where’s the responsibility here, especially when you consider that there are lives at risk? Or is the message ‘eat whatever you want and just take our drug and all your problems go away?’ How could Novo not anticipate the backlash created, and in my opinion easily anticipated, by this unholy alliance? And by the way, where was Novo’s PR agency that launched the campaign during this whole fiasco? In a collective sugar coma after one of Paula’s home cooked meals? There are times you just have to tell your client, “NO! This is wrong. It won’t work and we can’t get behind it.” Although I understand taking this position was probably difficult if not in point of fact impossible, since this same agency surely spent countless hours inscribing memos and gathering Q score data to sell their client on this idea in the first place! Hats off to Paula’s long-suffering publicist who finally had the guts to walk away from a campaign she didn’t believe in.
My favorite sound bite from the campaign thus far came two days later on January 18, when Deen went on ABC’s The Chew. When asked if she was compensated for her Victoza campaign, Deen replied, “Naturally I am being compensated, my children are being compensated, because we, like everybody else we have to work.”
It has been reported that Deen made upwards of 24 million dollars in 2011 alone. I can’t imagine that advising Paula to play the “I need to make a living card” was part of a campaign “message” track undoubtedly painstakingly developed and rehearsed by Novo, Deen, and their PR teams. Amazingly, Deen goes on to say that the moment to reveal her condition was determined by her higher power (“in God’s time” is how she put it). As Eric Webber writes in AdAge, “That’s a particularly cynical dodge. As if Deen didn’t really have a say in the matter. Since she made her announcement at the same time as revealing her endorsement deal, I guess God’s messenger came in the form of someone from diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk bearing a lucrative contract.”
What was Novo thinking?
I make my living pairing celebrities and pharmaceutical companies. Yes, we’ve been under fire many times in the past but, all in all, the marriage between pharma and celebrity endorsements has settled comfortably into the media landscape as a mainstream strategy and effective marketing tool. Until now. The Paula Deen campaign for Novo may have just defined the moment that pharma celebrity endorsement campaigns “jumped the shark” and, in so doing, jeopardized our industry, celebrity credibility, and my livelihood! I agree with Webber completely when he states, “It’s the kind of thing that gives our industry a black eye — the reputation that we’ll do anything, sell anything for money. Situations like this though, that smack too much of blatant opportunism, run the risk of eroding the confidence of spokespeople for any brand.”
I am sure Novo thought — or convinced themselves during endless internal meetings – that putting Deen’s two sons, Jamie and Bobby, along with their new book (and Cooking Channel TV show) “Not My Momma’s Meals,” out on the campaign trail would help spin Big Mama’s deal favorably but consumers are not stupid. Since this story broke, rumor mills reports that even her sons tried to talk her out of signing on as the new Novo diabetes spokes model. Of course these rumors started just days after we all learned that Deen’s publicist jumped ship as a result of her client’s bad decision. My cynical side tells me both Bobby and Jamie could be behind this latest batch of rumors as they too try to run for cover from this debacle.
Only time will tell how Novo Nordisk plans to reconcile the contradictory messages Paula Deen will be sending while whipping up her famous Brunch Burgers (a hamburger concoction with a patty, bacon and fried egg sandwiched between two glazed doughnuts) on the Food Network and serving as headline spokesperson for the Novo “Diabetes in a New Light” campaign. Because if a public spokesperson’s public behavior doesn’t matter, why not just make a deal with the ghost of John Candy?