It’s an old story: the company has associated itself with a particular celebrity in advertisements and other promotions, and now things have gone off the rails for that celebrity. Suddenly, Hertz’s long use of OJ Simpson to endorse the company just isn’t working anymore. The Livestrong Foundation, formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation, separated from its founder Lance Armstrong, changed its name, and rebranded after he was stripped of his Tour de France victories and eventually admitted to doping.
These situations are bad. The company has to determine how to handle the situation, whether to immediately sever ties with the spokesperson or to wait and see what happens, and how to move on after the relationship is terminated while minimizing the damage to the brand. The existing brand strategy may have to be scrapped immediately.
Normally you’re pretty safe when instead of a human, you use a fictional character as the face of the organization. Mr. Clean for example, even though he seems a little provocative in his latest incarnation, can probably be trusted to keep his activities within the bounds of acceptability. Even Bugs Bunny, who has done some ad work at various times in his career, keeps his transgressive personality within societal norms applicable to wisecracking rodents.
Which brings us to costumed characters, and specifically Mr. Met. Mr. Met is the costumed mascot who presides at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets baseball team. According to Wikipedia, he began as a drawing when the Mets played in the Polo Grounds, then emerged as a costumed mascot – possibly the first for any Major League team – when the Mets began playing in Shea Stadium in 1964. Forbes Magazine named him the number 1 mascot in all sports – and nobody knows sports mascot popularity like Forbes Magazine.
Here we see Mr. Met, out with his wife in happier times and making appropriate use of his digits. By slgckgc on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons.
But like many longtime New Yorkers, Mr. Met can be irascible, and that has led to the latest incident. The Mets have had a challenging couple of months to begin the season, and while the team was busy losing 7-1 to the Brewers, on May 31, Mr. Met was caught on camera flipping off a fan. (There is controversy about whether he gave the fan the middle finger, since he has an even number of digits, but three fingers. But the import of the gesture is indisputable.)
The Mets immediately issued an apology on Twitter.
Although this could be a disaster if it tarnished the brand, the damage is mitigated by a few things. One is that it turns out that there is a regular person inside that costume, and while it would be hard to fire your beloved 53-year-old mascot, it’s easy to fire the guy inside and say you’ve dealt with the problem. Whether the Mets will do that or just give all those who don the costume a stern talking-to about propriety remains to be seen.
Another mitigating factor is that Mr. Met seems to have been expressing the same frustration that a lot of Met fans are feeling – a lot of Twitter commenters seem to think it’s good that he’s showing some passion. For a substantial group of fans, Mr. Met was engaged in what they would consider a “frank exchange of viewpoints,” which might make him even more beloved.
A third is that, while the video doesn’t tell us what prompted the gesture, we can all surmise that Mr. Met was getting heckled, and the gesture seems to have been directed at a particular fan rather than the fans at large. This was not like the classic 1983 explosion by Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia in which he dropped innumerable f-bombs about fans who, he said, came to Wrigley Field because they didn’t have jobs (back in the day when all Cubs home games were played in daylight).
So Mr. Met will probably get through this intact, even though the offending image will not be going away anytime soon. This may be the video that launched a thousand Facebook profile pictures, and the Mets will likely see it in rival ballparks. Not what the Mets would have wanted for their brand, but definitely not up there with OJ or Armstrong. Or maybe this is an example of the principle that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right – and it’s easy to spell “Mr. Met.”
But like all brand owners, the team should be careful about who they entrust their image to. The team might have known this was coming; Mr. Met has shown this part of his personality before. A SportsCenter commercial he did several years ago offered a glimpse of his short temper.