With The Brand: Beating The Rap

Reebok's decision to drop Rick Ross from an endorsement deal reminds some who calls the tune in the music business today

For a little while, at least, it looked like the hip-hop endorsement deal had changed.

In the past two years alone, corporate brands like PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, Kraft's Sour Patch Kids and Chrysler have all signed endorsement deals with such edgy rappers as Lil Wayne, Method Man and Eminem, respectively, despite the controversy associated with their lyrics and personal behavior. But Reebok's decision to pull its pact with Rick Ross over lyrics in the song "U.O.E.N.O." that suggested date rape reveal that the morality clauses written into many branding deals are far from invisible.

Typically when brands abbreviate an endorsement of an artist for moral decisions, it's because of alleged criminal behavior. Examples include Chris Brown's 2009 campaign and original song "Forever" with Wrigley's Doublemint gum, which was suspended after the singer was arrested for his post-Grammy Awards assault of Rihanna, and T.I.'s 2010 deal with Unilever's Axe body spray that was severed after he was sentenced to jail for 11 months due to a probation violation.

But Reebok's hands quickly became tied when consumers started signing online petitions, tweeting at Reebok and even protesting outside the company's flagship store in New York, led by a women's rights group called UltraViolet. "Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand," Reebok said in a statement to Billboard. "Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so. While we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault, we are very disappointed he has yet to display an understanding of the seriousness of this issue or an appropriate level of remorse. At this time, it is in everyone's best interest for Reebok to end its partnership with Mr. Ross."

Only after Reebok terminated its relationship did Ross issue his own statement the following day, in which he said, "As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility. And most recently, my choice of words was not only offensive, it does not reflect my true heart. And for this, I apologize."

Reebok's decision signifies an about-face for brands that have largely chosen to look the other way when signing with rappers known for touchy content. Tyler, the Creator, a rapper who first came to notoriety for deliberately shocking rhymes about rape and murder, recently launched his own branding agency (Camp Flog Gnaw) based on the exact notion that brands want to associate themselves with edgy personalities. He is now directing a series of off-beat commercials for Mountain Dew that air exclusively on Adult Swim as part of a long-term partnership with the soda brand, with other clients in the works. William Morris Endeavor helped put together Tyler, the Creator's branding arm.

And although Brown has yet to ink a major ­endorsement deal following his felony assault conviction, he has performed at virtually every major music awards show in recent years and seen two different albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200-a sign that careers can rebound relatively quickly after scandal.

Still, entertainment and music law attorney Ken Abdo advises musicians to take their lyrical content into consideration when inking their next multimillion-dollar contract. "This is not working with a record company and making art. This is selling stuff," he says. "Branding means working for the man, whether it's a perfume or a tennis shoe. It compromises in many ways what you can do and say. And frankly, that can compromise the credibility of some artists, and it certainly did here."


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