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Through Weeks of Depp v. Heard, Dior Stood By

Actor Johnny Depp gestures to spectators in court after closing arguments at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 27, 2022.   Actor Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for libel after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”  (Photo by Steve Helber / POOL / AFP)
Actor Johnny Depp gestures to spectators in court after closing arguments at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 27, 2022. Actor Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for libel after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” (Photo by Steve Helber / POOL / AFP)

In 2008, Sharon Stone, then a brand ambassador for the Dior Capture skin-care line, caused a scandal in China with remarks she made at the Cannes Film Festival suggesting that a deadly earthquake in Sichuan province was “karma” for the country’s mistreatment of Tibet. Before you could say “J’adore,” Dior had pulled her ads from China and issued an official apology in her name.


In 2005, when photographs of Kate Moss published in The Daily Mail seemed to show her snorting cocaine, she was dropped from planned ad campaigns by Chanel, Burberry and H&M.


And in 2009, when Tiger Woods admitted to numerous extramarital affairs, his contracts with Tag Heuer and Procter & Gamble were curtailed.


Yet after weeks of Johnny Depp, the face of Dior’s Sauvage men’s scent since 2015, in court for his defamation case against his former wife Amber Heard, and her countersuit — a case in which both sides were exposed as deeply flawed — Dior continued to stand, albeit silently, by its man. And his ads.


Just as it did in 2020, when Depp sued The Sun newspaper for calling him a “wife beater,” and lost, with the British judge stating that he believed multiple alleged violent incidents had occurred and that Depp had put Heard “in fear of her life.” This time, the jury found that both Depp and Heard had been defamed, although Depp was awarded more money.


Dior’s silence comes despite the fact that the year before that trial, Sauvage itself was at the center of a controversy over an ad campaign that featured Depp wandering lonesome on the plains, as somewhere nearby a Native American performed a tribal dance (and a product name that is awfully close to a historic racial slur appeared). After two weeks of a public outcry, the commercial was taken off the air.


What gives? How is it that this time, when faced with the ad — on Dior’s website — featuring Depp’s smoldering self strumming his electric guitar in the desert and intoning, “In the wilderness, fearless and human, Sauvage,” there have been no particular protests? No calls to sign a petition boycotting the scent on change.org? That even fashion watchdog Diet Prada has yet to weigh in on the Depp-Dior relationship?


Something has fundamentally changed. And it may say as much about our tolerance for bad behavior and our relationship to celebrity (and cancel) culture as about the marketing model of luxury brands.


Once upon a time, when the celebrity endorsement was born, so was the awareness that a brand entered into the relationship at its own risk. The potential upside was high: Unlike a model, who was effectively a blank slate onto which a brand projected itself, a celebrity was a vessel already filled with associations, be it glamour, masculinity, philanthropy. If cracks appeared in that facade, however, they could send shock waves to the products.


“In the past, when a celebrity was accused of something, almost anything, even before they went to trial, a luxury brand would distance itself,” said Robert Burke, the founder of a luxury consultancy. Luxury brands were notoriously averse to controversy, and any association that could upset consumers or tarnish the golden glow of the brand’s name.


But, said Lucie Greene, the founder of the forecasting and strategy company Light Years: “We’re also seeing some big celebrity bounce backs and redemptions. Almost to the point of being cyclical.” Think, for example, of Kourtney Kardashian’s Dolce & Gabbana-“hosted” wedding, which was another stage in that brand’s return after multiple offensive statements by the designers.


“The general public has gotten worn down by cancel culture and accusations, and brands are not as quick as they might have been to take a position,” Burke said. He and Greene believe this may be the beginning of a shift.


Reactions are no longer knee-jerk. That’s a good thing. But the silence, at least on the part of Dior, which did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment, seems less measured than calculated.


Dior may well be betting that despite the intense public interest in the Depp-Heard trial, consumers will be on to the next escapist distraction now that the verdict is in. That, as a company, Dior’s loyalty to its chosen celebrity, and the understanding that we are all fallible beings, will outweigh the sort of behavior Depp has already acknowledged. That upsetting Heard’s fans is less potentially damaging than upsetting his fans.


That despite the fact that the majority of Dior’s sales come from womenswear, and its women’s line is led by a female designer whose first show included shirts with the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie line “We should all be feminists” — despite the fact that the company created a women@dior program to encourage female professionals — its support of Depp will not be seen as subverting those positions.


That the company can keep its head down and wait to see how the consumer responds. And the consumers, at least in Depp’s case, seem to be speaking loudly. Calls have gone out over social media to buy #Sauvage, the better to demonstrate support for Depp. It has become the fragrance equivalent of an expensive message tee; a fan souvenir.


All of which suggests it is possible that one of the only entities that could profit from the train wreck that is Depp v. Heard may turn out to be Dior and the brand-celebrity alliance in general. Whether this is a victory that a brand should want is another question.


Already a reframing of the experience is in the air. A response to the extreme vitriol unleashed against Heard is brewing in the digisphere, which serves as a reminder that the real issue is not celebrity or fragrance or branding, but a relationship that veered into physical and emotional violence.


And to keep quiet about that completely stinks. — NYT


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