David Blecken
Mar 20, 2019

Celebrities, brands and drugs: not a clear-cut story

Brands' treatment of Japanese entertainer Pierre Taki raises ethical questions.

Pierre Taki (left) in a promotional photo for musical act Denki Groove.
Pierre Taki (left) in a promotional photo for musical act Denki Groove.

When Japanese singer and actor Pierre Taki admitted to being a cocaine user, brands were quick to punish him. The entertainer was arrested on 12 March after a months-long investigation and tested positive for the drug. He later admitted that he had used it since his 20s.

Lixil, the building supplies company, immediately jettisoned Taki as an endorser, calling his actions “unforgivable”, and others followed, in some cases deleting past material that featured him.

Sega, Disney and NHK opted to drop Taki from existing and upcoming content. Sega went as far as to delete tweets relating to him, while NHK shelved the planned screening of films featuring him. On Monday, the broadcaster substituted Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which, some observers pointed out, includes another famous drug user, River Phoenix.

In addition, Sony Music suspended physical and digital sales of music by Denki Groove, Taki’s group, a move which the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto criticised sharply, arguing that the content should be seen as blameless and distinct from any transgressive actions by the artists that produced it. Others questioned the media’s demonisation of Taki, agreeing with Sakamoto that an artist’s work should not be denigrated due to drugs, and saying that framing drug users as common criminals is unhelpful from a societal perspective.

Police resources could arguably have been put to better use than the surveillance of an aging celebrity’s leisure activities. But the high-profile nature of Taki’s arrest can be seen as a police PR campaign in its own right, suggests one PR professional in Tokyo, who asked to remain anonymous. On the one hand, it shows the police to be active in catching so-called criminals; on the other, it sends a strong message to would-be drug users.

The law aside, questions remain as to whether Taki deserves the treatment he has received from brands and media platforms for what is a relatively minor offence. Yes and no, say Japanese advertising industry sources. Advertisers “have the right to cut their ties to reduce their marketing investment risk,” says Masahiro Ando, chief strategy officer of Publicis One.

“Brands associate themselves with celebrities as individuals who embody a set of values that reflects the brand’s,” says Stephen Cox, North Asia vice-chairman of Havas. The values are “partly expressed by their oeuvre, but just as much by the way they live their lives… Pierre Taki’s admitted behaviour cannot represent the values of any brand, and brands must disengage.”

“As a brand, you would never want to be seen as supporting a criminal,” agrees Yoshi Matsuura, executive planning director of McCann Japan.   

While international musicians known to have used drugs remain popular in Japan, Taki’s treatment reflects changing times in which drug use is less tolerated. “Companies need to embrace tighter compliance in this age of digital technology,” Matsuura says. “When the media environment has completely changed and social media has a huge impact on brands, celebrities face a tougher environment than in the Beatles’ age.”

Does that mean that a transgression warrants total deletion? One anonymous source sees erasing past content featuring Taki as “extreme”, but others disagree, saying brands risk negative association even from old material that continues to live online.  “It is fair for the sponsors who were just borrowing his popularity to erase his branded appearance,” Ando says. “I would have to do so if I were still in a client position.”

But that should not extend to his existing work as an artist, meaning different rules apply for the media brands looking to disassociate themselves. “It is wrong and an overreaction to suddenly stop airing content featuring him and stop selling all Denki Groove’s work,” says Ando. “Fans and audiences still have the right to enjoy that content.”

At the same time, removing Taki from content that has yet to release makes sense in order to avoid complaints, the PR source says. Taki does of course still have his supporters. Denki Groove CDs are reportedly commanding high prices at auction since Sony’s sanctions. And Toei plans to release Mahjong Horoki 2020, featuring Taki as chairman of the Tokyo Olympics, on 5 April. The studio said at a press conference that it believed it was wrong to jeopardise the efforts of all involved in the project on account of an individual's actions, and that art should be seen as something separate. Toei will carry a disclaimer in the film and has offered to refund ticketholders who no longer want to see it.

Can Taki's personal brand survive intact? Staging a full comeback is likely to be difficult, but not impossible. “In Japan, compared to the west, people who are considered to have committed a crime face a very hard time to re-establish social trust, regardless of their prior social status,” Matsuura says. He notes that a drug offence is quite different to “inappropriate behaviour” such as adultery, which is easier to bounce back from. The PR observer suggests there may be little distinction between crimes: once someone has crossed the legal line, they will struggle to regain their past status.

For Ando, “honesty and sincerity” are key to re-acceptance. “Japan is a country that tends to overreact against ‘wrongdoers’ in general, but people are tolerant to those who admit and regret their mistakes and commit to make up for them,” he says.

“I’m sure societally, Taki can rehabilitate himself, but I suspect it will take renunciation and active campaigning against illegal drug use over time, unreservedly positioning himself as an example,” says Cox. “Perhaps then, braver brands will associate with him again.”

"Unheard of and implausible"

Japan’s hardline stance on drug use differs somewhat to that in similarly advanced markets such as the US. Were a similar scenario to arise there, “I do think the reaction would be quite different for some brands, but not all,” says Patrick Palmer, managing director of Purple Strategies, a brand reputation management firm based in Washington DC.

Palmer says he would expect a similar response from a family-oriented brand like Disney, but that others may not be so fast to cut ties. “While drug addiction is a criminal act, it is also seen as a treatable disease by the mainstream and is closely associated with other forms of mental illness. So to have brands distance themselves abruptly and in a punitive way from a celebrity charged with drug use might not be the same in the US.”

Palmer concedes that drug use is far more common in the US, with celebrities constantly moving “in and out of rehab”, but adds that “Americans love a redemption story”. He cites Robert Downey Jr and Charlie Sheen as examples of actors who had been successful after battling very public addictions. He said Sony Music’s decision to suspend sales “would be unheard of and implausible” given that a large number of music artists are “known for their association with drugs”.

Asked what the best course of action for a brand would be, he says it depends on the brand, its values and the values of its stakeholders, and their level of tolerance “for that sort of behaviour”. He reiterates that “moving away so quickly that you seem unsympathetic to the plight that addiction represents could be dangerous”.

By contrast, brands are typically much less indulgent when it comes to issues of sexual misconduct or racism, he points out, even if no criminal act has been proven.

When working with celebrities, “you have to understand there is a chance something might happen—you just have to accept the risk,” he concludes. “In the age of cellphone cameras, any celebrity has the potential of being caught doing something unflattering or damaging to the brand. On the other hand, news moves so fast that these things are often forgotten in a couple of cycles. It’s a double-edged sword."

Ryoko Tasaki contributed to this article.

Campaign Japan

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