NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Once, bad-behaving celebrities routinely lost their endorsement opportunities because sponsors didn't want to be tainted by their misconduct.
Nike (NKE)NKE dropped Lance Armstrong when doping allegations destroyed the cyclist's credibility. Famed golfer Tiger Woods lost endorsement deals with Gatorade, AT&T (T)T and Accenture (ACN)ACN to a sex scandal. When celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to having used a racial epithet years before, sponsors including J.C. Penney (JCP)JCP, Home Depot (HD)HD and Target (TGT)TGT raced to abandon her.
That's why it came as no surprise when, in December, A&E suspended Phil Robertson from its hit show Duck Dynasty for offensive remarks made in a GQ interview. Robertson's condemnation of homosexuality and cringe-worthy denial of the ugly realities of the Jim Crow South (the latter of which, for some reason, received precious little media attention) outraged LGBT and progressive viewers.
The Internet was abuzz after the suspension, with conservative leaders praising Robertson for defending traditional Christian values and free speech while gay rights organizations and liberal commentators excoriated him as an empty-headed bigot.
Robertson issued a statement shortly after his suspension, saying in part, "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me." That's patently untrue. A recently released 2010 video shows Robertson denouncing the LBGT community as "full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant God-haters. They are heartless. They are faithless. They are senseless. They are truthless. They invent ways of doing evil."
If that isn't "disrespect," what is?
In suspending Phil Robertson, A&E seems to have made a simple financial calculation, reckoning that it would lose advertising revenue if its LGBT and liberal viewers abandoned the network. (The fact that some members of the Duck Dynasty production team were homosexual was also, reportedly, a factor in the suspension decision. A&E would have been ill-advised to force gay employees to work with a self-declared hater.)
The Cracker Barrel (CBRL)CBRL restaurant chain apparently made a similar calculation, pulling Duck Dynasty merchandise from its gift shops. A&E and Cracker Barrel both undoubtedly thought they'd put the controversy behind them ... and they couldn't have been more wrong.
Fan reaction to Roberston's suspension and Cracker Barrel's actions was swift and vehement. As Wal-Mart (WMT)WMT raked in profits from Duck Dynasty merchandise, A&E and Cracker Barrel were raked over the coals online. The conflagration grew, and executives apparently decided that they had miscalculated. Within days, A&E retracted Roberston's suspension and Cracker Barrel restocked its Duck Dynasty shelves. Robertson's hardest core fans rejoiced, triumphant.
Robertson's return to Duck Dynasty raises serious questions about the future of controversial pitchmen. He may have survived in part due to the nature of his on-camera persona; after all, one would hardly expect a squirrel-eating swamp dweller who makes his living luring wild animals to their deaths to be a paragon of progressive philosophy.
Nonetheless, one would expect that his open gay-bashing and blatant disregard of the suffering of black Americans in the Jim Crow South to offend the sensibilities of most Americans. Paula Deen, a likeable, grandmotherly woman, saw her culinary empire crumble over her use of racist language years ago. How is it possible that Phil Robertson emerged unscathed after spewing so many offensive statements so recently?
A&E and Cracker Barrel may have concluded that consumers who share Robertson's opinions comprise too big a segment of their target market to sacrifice on a matter of principle. If so, they're playing a dangerous game. Robertson's fans may be cheering now, but his ugly words will linger online for years to come, and it's only a matter of time before public opinion turns against him.
Further, if Robertson tops off his hateful comments with even more vitriol in the future, neither A&E nor Cracker Barrel will be able to claim they didn't see it coming. Worse, Robertson's return could touch off a poisonous trend of companies promoting their products by appealing to consumers' most hateful prejudices.
By backing down from their decisions to drop Robertson, A&E and Cracker Barrel have demonstrated that they're more interested in making money with a hate-filled pitchman than in maintaining an inclusive and socially responsible corporate culture. They may profit, but at what price? Only time will tell.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.