Brands in the News

A Branding Disaster at the Oscars

28 Mar 2022  

A disaster. That is perhaps the one word we can use to sum up the Academy Awards this year, an event most notable for Will Smith attacking Chris Rock.

The Branding Impact

The Oscars were a disaster for Will Smith. At his time of great success, the moment when he should be celebrating and enjoying congratulations, he hits Chris Rock and completely transforms the night and the branding message. His violent outburst changes his brand, forever.

It was a disaster for Chris Rock. First, he gets brutally hit by Will Smith. Then people attack him for making an inappropriate joke about someone’s health condition.

It was a disaster for the Academy. The good news is that people are now talking about the Oscars, which is a refreshing change for the fading spectacle. It might result in stronger viewership in future years, reversing a stunning decline. The problem is that the story is about a violent interchange between two high profile actors.

It was a disaster for race relations. This was a conflict between two high-profile, well-established black actors. It occurred as violence is raging in cities across our country, especially black neighborhoods.

A Learning

One branding lesson is pretty clear: when you are in the spotlight, be particularly careful with what you do. Think first, act later. Don’t push the envelope. You build a brand and damage a brand most when everyone is watching.

The dynamic holds in a business context. When your brand is getting attention, be cautious and careful. On an individual level, when you are doing a big presentation, get it right. Don’t make flip jokes. Have back-up copies of everything.

What Now?

The more complex question now is this: what should Chris, Will and the Academy do to address the brand damage?

Chris Rock should take the high road. He already did an amazing thing when he continued the show after the assault. He didn’t hit back. He didn’t stumble. He was a master. Chris Rock should say “I understand these things happen. It was an intense time. Will Smith is an amazing performer. I apologize if my joke touched on a personal health issue, and I will try to avoid this in the future.”

Will Smith has a far more difficult task. He apologized in his acceptance speech, which was a start. But his comments didn’t work. Saying “Love will make you do crazy things…” suggests that sometimes violence is appropriate. This is the wrong message. Then he apparently celebrated later at Oscar parties.

Smith should apologize to the Academy and to Rock. He should say that he will be getting counseling to deal with his anger issues. He should step back for six months or a year. He should be an example of humility and leadership. Perhaps something like “As a country, we have to do a better job managing violence. We have to learn that attacking people is never the right answer.”

He could use this to have a bigger impact. He could visit schools and talk to young people. He could work with anti-violence organizations. Perhaps he could make this a positive moment for his brand and for the country.

The easy move for the Academy would be to just say that it rejects violence in any form and then move on. Taking away Smith’s award won’t address the issue. But perhaps the Academy could also use this as a platform, launching a new initiative to reduce violence in Hollywood. The reality is that performers are influencers and violence should never be seen as an appropriate response to a situation.

If the players move quickly, there might be a positive end to the story.

9 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    Some of the comments here make no sense to me. Perhaps extrapolating from the Rock-Smith issue to race relations broadly was a stretch and people are right to point out that if two white people smacked each other we would not be saying this was an issue for white people broadly. This is a fair critique, but marketing is all about extrapolating small events to discuss how they influence things at large, so I donno this feels like the appropriate thing for an academic to discuss if you ask me.

    Secondly, defending Will Smith for getting on stage and hitting someone feels crazy. The joke was insensitive yes, and if Will Smith had yelled at Chris Rock from the audiance for the incensitive joke we would all be praising him for standing up for his wife. But getting up on stage and hitting Chris was absolutely not warranted, violence is never the answer.

    Lastly, making a jab that Tim probably laughed at the joke is crazy. Even Will Smith laughed at the joke! Watch the video, everyone did. Will only got up once he saw his wife was upset.

  2. Nuno Morgado says:

    As usual, Mr. Calkins is right on the money. Looks like Smith listened to your advice!

  3. No one asked says:

    No one asked for your racist take on Smith defending his wife against an influencer who bullies people with his ableism and misogynoir. Black people are not at fault for this nation’s violence either. This has nothing to do with freaking politics either. I dare you to tell me you wouldn’t do the same to protect people you love. Northwestern should not be advertising your useless “take”.

  4. Screw Off says:

    This is such a racist take of the situation. There was no violence and no “branding” here, this was Smith letting Rock know that his ableism and misogynoir is not a joke. The man’s not violent, he’s human, and this has nothing to do with the color of his skin or freaking economics. If someone was making a joke on the behalf of your family, you CANNOT tell me that you wouldn’t be pissed, whether or not you were on national television or off camera. Smith did one single slap! That’s not a message to his fans that fighting people is okay, it’s a message that bullying people is not funny. Do not blame black people for raising violence in this country, that has nothing to do with a man defending his wife.
    Honestly, I bet you were laughing at Rock’s joke. With the way you are talking about these two and black people is sickening. I hope I never take a class of your’s. My disabled black ass does not have time to put up with assholes who thinks every black person is teetering on the edge of violence at every moment. I hope you apologize for this stupid ‘take’ and ask Northwestern to stop advertising it. You shouldn’t be allowed to share this blatant racism where other’s can see and think the same way. As a professor you should be ashamed, but I know you won’t.

  5. Ferdinanda Marcic says:

    I enjoyed your take, Tim. I feel strongly that security at the Academy Awarss should have removed Smith from the audience. The Academy should have discreetly rescinded his award and given it instead to the runner up.

  6. Wait, what? How on earth was this a “disaster for race relations”? And what causal link can there possibly be between something that happened on the Oscars stage and “violence is raging in cities across our country, especially black neighborhoods.”?

  7. Nope says:

    This is astoundingly ignorant and absolutely none of your business. Black men are not “brands,” the joke was disturbingly sexist and ableist, and a slap is the absolute least of this world’s problems, let alone the perpetually racist and pro-abuser Academy’s.

    • Anon says:

      Yes terrible take. Let’s take back Oscars from Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Weinstein. Ridiculous weak take.

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