As Food Network, Smithfield Foods Cut Ties, Paula Deen Sees Fans Rally

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The Paula Deen scandal is the stuff media headlines are made of. After public court records revealed that the Food Network star admitted to using the “n-word” and tolerated racist jokes in her workplace, the network announced it will not renew her contract, ending a relationship that began in 1999 and culminated in her own show, Paula’s Home Cooking, in 2002 and later Paula’s Party and Paula’s Best Dishes.

Deen was named in a suit filed by Lisa Jackson, a former employee who worked as a manager at a restaurant owned by Deen and her brother and business partner, Bubba Hiers. Jackson claimed she was sexually and racially harassed.

Late last week, Deen—whose reputation is still recovering from running afoul of anti-obesity campaigners—posted a video apology on YouTube, which now has over 3.4 million views, for using “inappropriate, hurtful language” and for failing to show up for a scheduled interview with NBC’s Today Show host Matt Lauer.

“I want people to understand that my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are,” she said. “Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me. But it’s what’s in the heart, and my family and I try to live by that. I am here to say I am so sorry. I was wrong, yes.”[more]

Between television, speaking engagements, cookbooks, licensing and endorsement deals, Forbes estimates Deen’s wealth at $17 million and sources say she was paid between $10,000 and $20,000 per episode for her Food Network series. Deen, who like many network TV stars has built an empire of products around her cooking shows, risks losing much more than just her TV contract. 

Indeed, on Monday, the newly China-owned Smithfield Foods, which sold Paula Deen-branded hams and used the star as a spokesperson, announced it was dropping her with the statement that the brand “condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind. Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen.”

Deen also sells her cookbooks and cookware via QVC, Sears and Walmart, all of which said they are monitoring the situation closely. (A QVC spokesperson stated, “We are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen, and in the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC.”) Deen could also lose her cookbook publishing deal with Ballantine as well as her restaurant deal with Caesars Entertainment Corp.

However, one sponsor that is standing by Deen is Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical company that named Deen a spokesperson for its Victoza brand of insulin after she admitted, controversially, that she had been diagnosed with Type II diabetes.

“We do not condone racial intolerance of any kind and have spoken to Paula about her comments in the deposition,” a Novo Nordisk spokesman told Ad Age. “While she takes a more proactive approach to clearing up her comments, our focus will continue to be to provide the best care possible to all of our patients where we work and live. Diversity and inclusion are part of who we are. We embrace different perspectives and ways of thinking to help us best serve our patients.”

As for the court of public opinion, it seems that the jury might be hung. After news spread about Food Network’s decision, droves of fans came to the defense of Deen on social media, posting scathing messages on Food Network’s Facebook page, and starting a “We Support Paula Deen” page, which, as of this post, has well over 305,000 likes. 

Despite the outcry, analysts say the reaction won’t sway Food Network’s decision. “I’m not surprised that Paula Deen’s fans have reached out for her, but the Food Network is not that concerned about a few thousand people on social media,’’ said media analyst Steve Adubato on TODAY. “They have to be concerned about sponsors.”

Food Network had “no wiggle room” on the matter, Allen Adamson, managing director at WPP’s Landor, told the Wall Street Journal. “They had to do the right thing. Today a mistake becomes too costly because of social media. When it’s racial there is less tolerance.”

As for Deen, it looks like she’s still hoping to ride the road to redemption. After her video apology, Deen released a statement “thanking” the Food Network for “11 great years,” and has since rescheduled her Today Show interview for Wednesday, June 26.

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