HOW WHOOPI PLAYED THE GAME AND LOST

Whoopi Goldberg had been hawking Slim-Fast as a way to shed pounds. Last week, Slim-Fast shed Whoopi.

The company announced it would no longer use Goldberg in its ads, even though she’d been signed as a spokesperson eight months ago. The reason: Goldberg’s recent comments at a fund-raiser for John Kerry.

According to those who attended, Goldberg appeared on stage with a bottle of wine and rattled off some comic double entendres about President George W. Bush, his last name and female genitalia. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

The concert, featuring rock stars and celebrities, has become a silly controversy, with the Bush campaign demanding the tapes be handed over (they should only be so forthcoming with documents concerning 9/11, Iraq or energy task forces) and the Kerry campaign trying to distance itself from the profanity but not the profit.

Whoopi, so far, is the only tangible casualty.

“We are disappointed by the manner in which Ms. Goldberg chose to express herself,” said Terry Olsen, Slim-Fast general manger, “and sincerely regret that her recent remarks offended some of our consumers.”

Now, this may surprise you, but while I staunchly defend the First Amendment, I have no problem with Slim-Fast’s actions. Last time I looked, it’s the right to free speech.

Not the right to endorse.

Just blame Atkins

Now, I know some will see this as a Republican conspiracy, a sign of these political times: Keep your mouth shut or pay a price.

But what price? Goldberg lost an endorsement deal, not her civil rights. And let’s be honest: Endorsement deals are a fairly dubious way to earn money. You are hired strictly on what people think of you, and how that opinion can be pasted onto a product in hopes of increasing its sales. It’s not about truth; it’s about image — a business deal based wholly on perception. If that perception changes, so does the value of the relationship.

Goldberg knew she was taking money for being a Slim-Fast endorser, just as she knew her riff at the event would find its way to the press. She proceeded anyhow. That is her right.

But it is also Slim-Fast’s right to say that’s not who it wants to endorse it. Slim-Fast is a diet product, not the Constitution. All Slim-Fast cares about is how many people buy its powders and bars. The product has slipped in the marketplace — blame the Atkins diet — and its executives are likely nervous about further erosion. Olsen got the job only a few weeks ago.

I’ll bet his decision had less to do with supporting Republicans than with stocking shelves.

The Kobe lesson

As of deadline for this column, Whoopi had yet to comment on Slim-Fast’s decision. If she does, it should not be to complain. Celebrities make an implicit deal with product endorsements; they will remain the person people admire, at least the people likely to buy the product.

If, for example, Anna Kournikova began wearing long, conservative dresses and no makeup, you can bet she would lose her sexy endorsement deals. If LeBron James were to suddenly lose interest in basketball, he would not be hawking Sprite. We see what Kobe Bryant’s extracurricular activities cost him in endorsements.

Apparently, Slim-Fast thought Whoopi’s funny, self-deprecating manner — along with her fluctuating weight — would help push its product. But if people see her picture and think “politics” — well, that’s not the same as “get skinny.”

And by the way, I don’t think this was mere pandering to right wing Republicans. There are plenty of Democrats who may hate Bush but still don’t think it good taste to use a president and female genitalia in a comedy routine.

Those who support Goldberg can boycott Slim-Fast, organize protests, take out ads. That’s free speech, too.

But let’s be clear about what this is and isn’t about. All Goldberg lost was something she had gained through similar actions: how she came across. She still has the right to say anything she wants. Except “Why me?”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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