A celebrity controversy could actually be good for brand sponsors — here's why

The Colin Kaepernick-narrated advertising campaign for Nike drew record likes on social media, got more than $160 million worth of exposure on TV, radio and digital media, spawned a ton of spoofs and created a surge in Nike's online sales in the days after the commercial was released.

And new research suggests that, as Nike has seen, choosing a controversial celebrity to front a brand could be beneficial, even if it is risky.

Celebrity research firm Spotted carried out a study with 1,000 people in the U.S. in September, asking them to score famous names for more than 200 attributes including "influential," "outspoken," "role model" and "charming." It then compared their scores with those of around 20,000 celebrities globally.

In the study, Kaepernick is rated by consumers as a "non-conformist" and scores highly for being "provocative" and "controversial." But he is also seen as a "role model" (scoring higher than 91 percent of other celebrities) and a "visionary," scoring higher than 96 percent of other celebrities.

"Attributes such as this are all likely of paramount importance to Nike and align well with the brand's personality and values," said Spotted CEO Janet Comenos in an email to CNBC on Wednesday.

"While risk and controversy traditionally leads brands into dangerous territory, the Nike and Colin Kaepernick case showcases that they can also be leveraged positively when the celebrity is a strong brand match and when paired with a strong mission and cause marketing focus," she added.

Michael Phelps (USA) of USA poses with his gold medal.
Marcos Brindicci | Reuters
Michael Phelps (USA) of USA poses with his gold medal.

Meanwhile, having a celebrity endorser who exhibits other controversial behavior, such as smoking marijuana, might not be such a bad thing. Swimmer Michael Phelps was criticized when a photo of him smoking a bong in 2009 was published, months after he'd won eight gold medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Kellogg's dropped its contract with Phelps at the time, while Speedo, Subway, Omega and Visa kept him on.

"'Marijuana' is perceived by consumers to be one of the least severe risks or controversies," Comenos said. "Consumers even find it less severe than 'struggles with alcohol' and 'feuds,' so this scandal likely presented Phelps' other brand partners (aside from Kellogg's) with little risk of negative impact on consumer perceptions and sentiment," Comenos said.

Celebrities who score highly for "talent" or "charm" are likely to suffer less from a scandal.

Tiger Woods, who was involved in a 2009 car crash and had several alleged affairs that saw sponsors Gillette, Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture cease their involvement with him, scores highly on "likelihood to create risk" and "controversial," in Spotted's research, but is also seen as "authoritative," and "disciplined."

U.S. golfer Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie on the 18th hole during the final round of the U.S. Open golf championship at Torrey Pines in San Diego June 15, 2008.
Robert Galbraith | Reuters
U.S. golfer Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie on the 18th hole during the final round of the U.S. Open golf championship at Torrey Pines in San Diego June 15, 2008.

Brands might choose to stick by celebrities throughout a scandal, depending on factors including its severity, whether it conflicts with brand values and how consumers might perceive it. For example, men are 12 percent more likely to forgive a celebrity's infidelity than women, according to the research.

"Female consumers care more about what a brand stands for and its values," Comenos said. "If a brand ends up working with a male celebrity who becomes involved in a scandal or controversy, they are putting themselves at risk of losing female consumers."