Last week, national swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling admitted to, in the official statement, ‘consuming cannabis’ in May while preparing for the SEA Games in Hanoi. Let’s say it as it is: the dude smoked weed. He admitted that he used it while coping with a very difficult time in his life.
The reaction, in a country with extremely strict anti-drug laws such as ours, as expected, was palpable. It seemed like every person within reaching distance of a keyboard gave their two cents.
Even our Minister for Home Affairs and Law Mr. K Shanmugam weighed in. It was measured, neutral and insightful, unlike a lot of the vitriol that went Schooling’s way.
There was also an outpouring of support, from people who realised the extreme standards with which we hold our public figures. Sometimes we expect them to be superhuman, but we should come to appreciate the fact that they are not.
But I think the most heartening outpouring of support came from Hugo Boss, who Schooling has been a brand ambassador with since 2018, when he became a professional athlete. And yes, he won the gold medal in 2016 as, in terms of technicalities, an ‘amateur’ athlete.
Hugo Boss publicly announced that their support for Schooling remains “strong and unwavered”.
“Joseph Schooling has been known as a sportsman who has had a positive influence in and out of the pool,” read the official statement from Hugo Boss. “He has worked hard to chase his dreams and inspire many others in this regard. We support his decision to rebuild trust in those who have believed in him over the past years.”
It was a brave statement from the brand, especially when we consider the underlying nuances when it comes to drug offences in Singapore.
And we completely agree – the steps that Schooling has taken to right his wrongs, and coming forward to admit his moments of weaknesses were the right choices, and the mark of a man who owns his mistakes with integrity. He will face the music for his actions, rightly so, but he can do so with his head held high.
The controversy reminded us of other times when brands stood by their ambassadors through some very public controversies. Take for example…
Dior and Johnny Depp
I’ve always adored Dior for its gorgeous complexity. On one hand, the Toile de Jouy, its famed floral motif. On the other, Kim Jones’ magnificent take on the Beat Generation, using motifs inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, as well as works by the other Beatnik luminaries such as Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. On one hand, the graceful Yara Shahidi as brand ambassador. On the other, veritable enfant terrible, Johnny Depp.
Not that we have anything against Johnny Depp, but his chain smoking and recreational drug use is very public knowledge. He teeters, somewhat, perpetually on the cusp of controversy – always edgy, never over-the-edge. Even back in 2015, when Dior first signed him on as a brand ambassador, he was a risky option. In 2019, Dior made him the face of their fragrance Sauvage, itself the subject of controversy after Dior was accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity in 2019 with a Sauvage ad campaign that was influenced by Native American culture. Just when we thought this partnership was tested to its limit, it was put through the wringer once more.
In 2020, Depp’s intensely acrimonious divorce with Amber Heard was announced. Shouting matches exploded, legal battles ensued, beds were defecated upon – allegedly. It wasn’t exactly brand ambassador material, whether Depp was right or wrong. But after Depp’s defamation lawsuit came to a verdict back in June, the Pirates of the Caribbean star went on to sign a seven-figure, multiyear contract to return as the face of Dior’s controversial fragrance, Sauvage.
It’s worth noting that Dior never quit on Johnny Depp. Even when the trial was at its infancy, and opinions were still rather divided, they retained his brand ambassadorship. Even as film projects he was attached to such as Fantastic Beasts and Pirates of the Caribbean dropped him, Dior stood by Depp.
Of course, Depp would eventually be vindicated. In most eyes, he won both the legal and moral battles in what was a very, very messy divorce. But perhaps it was Dior, too, that gave us a masterclass in shrewdness and playing it cool.
At the peak of the controversy in 2021, it was reported that a bottle of Sauvage was selling every three seconds, earning Dior a cool US$4.5 million per day. This was most likely due to Johnny Depp’s popularity as an actor, having played some of the most iconic leads in Hollywood.
Female fans could be seen commenting on social media hoping that the men in their lives would buy the fragrance, a tangible act of support for the actor. At one point, according to Google search data, it was the second most searched fragrance in the world.
The true test of loyalty, however, came from the world of golf.
Rolex and Tiger Woods
2009 wasn’t exactly the best year for Tiger Woods. First, when under the influence, he crashed his car into a tree and a fire hydrant outside his Florida home. Then, as journalists investigated the matter, they unearthed a string of extramarital affairs, that led to the golfer booking into a clinic to treat his sexual addiction. Soon afterwards, his wife Elin Nordegren divorced him.
The separations didn’t stop there. In light of these controversies, his contracts with Tag Heuer and Procter & Gamble were terminated.
One of the world’s most celebrated athletes – and one of the best endorsed – could be prematurely bringing about the end of an illustrious career.
One brand stuck by him, however: Rolex. This was a brand who was with Tiger from his ascent in the late 90s to his superstardom in the 2000s. And they stuck by him in 2009, keeping him a Rolex testimonee even as other brands looked for safer bets in the endorsement game.
Rolex’s decision took a while to be vindicated.
After his divorce, Tiger was not the same golfer. After 2010, as his divorce was getting finalised, he dropped from his top spot in the world rankings. He could not find an immediate solution, and his ranking plummeted all the way to 58 in November 2011. This was a golfer who ranked top in the world from August 1999 to October 2010 (with a short dip in form between September 2004 to June 2005 – a dismissible blip in the big picture). And then, between 2014 and 2017, Tiger Woods underwent four back surgeries that kept him out of the game. By January 2018, he had dropped from the top 1000 in the world rankings for the first time since he began his career in 1996. But he had returned to competitive golf.
Surely, at this point, Rolex would have cut their losses, right?
Perhaps it was something they saw in him back when they signed him on in 1999. Rolex stood by Tiger, a broken shadow of the man he used to be. For a year after he returned, Tiger didn’t win much. Then, on a mild autumn day in September 2019, he emerged victorious at the 83rd Masters Tournament. It produced one of the most iconic images in golfing history: Tiger, beside himself with joy, the pain of the past decade not lost in his look of utter, beatific triumph.
The official statement from Rolex was more measured, but it did contextualise just how huge this was for the brand and for Tiger Woods. “Demonstrating the spirit of perpetual excellence, championed by Rolex, Woods began to show the extent of his extraordinary return to elite golf first in 2018, coming close to victory in two Majors before winning the Tour Championship. Now, 11 years since his last Major victory, and on the famed fairways of Augusta National where the Californian has won four times previously, the legendary golfer has been rewarded for his exceptional perseverance.”
His rise to the top was interrupted yet again when he was involved in a car crash in 2021, but he did return to the Masters in April this year. Scottie Scheffler won this time, with Woods visibly limping in his last two rounds. Tiger would end the tournament at number 47. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from Rolex: never write off Tiger.
(Main and featured image: Hugo Boss)