Who Has the Ultimate Responsibility?

by Emily Jasper on February 8, 2011

We conducted a case analysis today about Nike and its history with labor issues. The class was split up into stakeholder groups, ranging from Phil Knight to the Vietnamese workers. I was placed in the group of celebrity spokespeople. At the time the case was first written (2000), most of the spokespeople said they were removed from Nike’s labor issues and didn’t feel personally responsible. There seem to be these invisible lines in the sand of who should be responsible for what. There isn’t ever any blurring or crossing…right?

Wrong. We know there’s blurring all the time. One of the best examples also involves Nike: Tiger Woods. He held fast for so long that his private life had no bearing on his professional life or value as an endorser, but in so many cases, companies that had hired Tiger had to take a step back until things calmed down. Those brands may say they are not personally responsible for Tiger’s behavior, but when it comes to affiliation, people will make the mental connections more often than not.

So where is the line?

I’m not sure there is one. If a company has questionable practices, we’d expect the celebrity spokespeople to put pressure on company to improve. If a singer or athlete is hired to attach their name to a brand, they are in essence an employee of the company. As an employee, shouldn’t you want your company doing what it can to provide good working conditions, fair wages, etc…?

I watch the show Bones a lot, and in one episode, a bomber is linked to a radical radio broadcaster. The broadcaster claims he isn’t responsible if someone interprets his message too literally, as with the bomber. By the end, however, he understands ranting on the airwaves and potentially calling for action are very different, and he could be considered responsible.

Responsibility and values seem to be more connected now. It’s expected that a celebrity endorser’s values match with those of the hiring company. For instance, Natalie Portman may not sign on to Nike, but as a representative of Dior, she wears vegan versions of their shoes. So much information is available online, we’d expect both parties to be well aware of the other. You really can’t trick consumers anymore into believing someone is just attaching their name to a brand. We’d like you to have actual preference and aligned values.

It would be nice if the line of responsibility could be cleared up, but I don’t think it will be. Just as every employee is a representative of their company, they have the power to diminish the company’s brand. If the company behaves poorly, it could be assumed those employees support the company’s behavior.

Call me crazy, but maybe we should try to be better behaved in general…

Photo credit.