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Paula Deen Cooks Up Controversy With Corporate Backers

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The trickle has become a torrent. Companies that previously fell over themselves to be part of the Paula Deen cooking empire are scrambling for the exits after she admitted to uttering a single racial pejorative more than 30 years ago.

What started with the Food Network not renewing her TV show contract has now turned into a complete rout, with major corporations including Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , Target, Home Depot, and Novo Nordisk (NYSE: NVO  ) all dropping their association with her.

Companies, of course, want to protect their image, and being associated with racism would do them no good. They understand they won't be harmed for cutting their ties, whether the charge is true or not, because consumers won't stop using their products or shopping at the stores because of it. But if they stay and it comes out that the epithets were more pervasive than we've been told, they'll feel the taint of the charge as well.

Yet in the wake of the brouhaha, it seems the companies may have misjudged what the public feels about this "scandal." Preorders for Deen's new cookbook have surged to the top of the best-sellers list at and her annual cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas ship reports a response so overwhelming that an extra departure next year has been added (Deen does not have a relationship with the cruise line; it's booked through a travel agency).

Now, I'm not much of a fan of Ms. Deen's cooking style (though I did make a red snapper recipe of hers the other day that wasn't bad) but it seems a bit over the top for companies to be turning the cooking queen into a pariah. After all, Paula Deen has embraced Michelle Obama and has been embraced by Oprah Winfrey, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and actress Stacey Dash. She brought the Neely cooking team to the Food Network and created lots of employment opportunities for black men and women. Hardly seems the way a racist would cook up a plot.

Yet it's also not much different from how corporations handled the contretemps associated with Tiger Woods' infidelity. Although Nike was willing to stand by the golfing great through his marital problems, Accenture ran away, as did AT&T, PepsiCo's Gatorade, and watchmaker Tag Heuer. 

Even so, companies are willing to turn a blind eye when it suits them to some of the baser elements of society, such as Reebok trying to give its sneakers "street cred" by signing on rapper Rick Ross, only to be shocked -- shocked! -- when his lyrics embodied the misogyny the whole genre is infamous for.

There is a price companies do pay for dropping a celebrity endorser, and Advertising Age notes that Wal-Mart's indoor living division, where product lines are heavily tilted in Deen's direction, was one of the few bright spots in the retailer's last quarter, posting positive comps last month. Novo Nordisk also enjoyed a 35% increase in revenues to nearly $500 million on its diabetes drug Victoza last quarter, presumably partly as a result of its association with Deen, who became a spokeswoman for the drug after she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Some estimates suggest Deen generated nearly $100 million a year across her portfolio of TV shows, books, and cookware, and Forbes ranked her as the fourth-highest-earning celebrity chef in 2012.

But as we've seen time and again, as long as companies choose to develop relationships with celebrities who live in the public eye, we're going to have these recurring scandals, manufactured or not. Whereas some companies like Nike go out of their way to court controversy, others are thrust into the spotlight. And then there are those like Paula Deen's partners, who make themselves part of the story by feeding the frenzy that surrounds it.

They just shouldn't be shocked when it happens to them again next time.

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Read/Post Comments (19) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:27 PM, gina4037 wrote:

    Paula Deen has been let go of the food cooking show, and has lost business connections with wal-Mart, Target, and Sears. I believe this whole mess has gone too far. After all she made a mistake that others have made yet they received not an ounce of flack. Too bad since i now will have to find other sites to shop with. I wish the best for Ms. Deen. She was my favorite on the cooking channel. Oh well there are other channels to watch.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:28 PM, thinkiamafool wrote:

    If anyone thinks for one minute that we, the good public, does not know blacks and their sypathizers who hold stock in these companies, did not claim Paula as their victim to sitick it to the southern woman, then they are bigger fools than those they think they are fooling. Blah!

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:31 PM, thinkiamafool wrote:

    No one chided Bill Clinton when he messed with a teen ager and he has parlayed it into millions.

    And Hillery is not known for her clean talk. I personally think the big M and the bid O ramroded this little deal heaped on Paula because they are the big time racists.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:35 PM, Morgan6565 wrote:

    I wouldn't be too sure about these corporations not losing any money over their decisions , a lot of people have already sworn to boycott and I for one will be buying from local suppliers and Amazon from now on and not Walmart, Target or Sears Kmart. They have definitely lost mine and my family and a lot of our friends business. These companies have been so quick to placate their black customers that they have angered the majority of their white customers and we have more money to spend or choose to spend elsewhere. The fact that Paula's books are at No 1 and 2 bestsellers on Amazon should give the so called retail giants a clue that they have made a big mistake. The vast majority of the public are on Paula's side.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:44 PM, upstateny wrote:

    Can they legally drop her lines and sponsership for a comment they are admittingly that she used 25+ years ago? Are statue of limitations on crimes, isn't there one for a comment that she made in the privacy of her own home, after the person she was describing put a gun to her head? Couldn't they have waited and see how the CONSUMERS reacted. Obviously, if there was an outrage of consumers that refused to buy her products...then they are justified drop her lines and sponserships. I think it would be smart for all of them to re-think their position and I think it will be very profitable for them. I also think in these cultural times the amount of time the n word in conversations, songs, is's just as offensive degrading. Even the person bringing the lawsuit states that she never heard Paula Deen use a racist comment. It seems to me that Paula Deen may have a few lawsuits herself...given the statements given for dropping her. Can you imagine your livlihood and reputation being destroyed for a comment made privately to your husband in your home 25+ years ago? I can't even wrap my head around this. This is so wrong in so many ways.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:48 PM, kwprincess wrote:

    Corporate America cannot stand a successful white woman. They are wrong if they think we will not stop shopping Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, Sears/K-Mart and stop all association with Food Network shows, magazines, and products. Instead of jumping on the band wagon, someone should stand up and commend a Southern woman who tells the truth and recognizes a mistake - even after 30 years. The TRUTH is a breath of fresh air after the constant/daily lying coming out of Washington.

    I hope the piece of white trash that started this by trying to extort money from her does not get a single dime. Paula is not a racist and we have all had about enough of the PC-police.

    Oh, and Smithfield, go ahead and sell out to China. I will not be buying your products any more either.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 3:56 PM, DarioDM wrote:

    The whole mess is unfortunate, an example of political correctness taken too far. She is a woman in her sixties who was raised in the South. To think that she never heard or used the word growing up is insane. The fact that she admitted to using the word shows character on her part. If it was proven that she used the word maliciously and often in her current life, then she should be dropped as a spokesperson. But to punish her, her family and her employees for what may or may not have happened in the past is wrong. Why can a black rapper use the N word and sell millions or records without recourse? Is it OK to call a fat person fat if you too are fat, but not if you are skinny. Please when did common sense get lost in favor of being politically correct. Has anyone at the Food Network every heard her say it? They are all hypocrites. She'll be back.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:02 PM, whisperjf wrote:

    If Paula said this 30 years ago and has not shown any other signs of discrimination since, I think it is outrageous to fire her now. She made a mistake then, when she wasn't representing anyone and is loved and respected by so many people now, including the businesses that that just fired her. Shame on them, hope they loose bunches of money over it.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:04 PM, ReallyLily wrote:

    WE have yet to see the outcome of Paula's day in court. After all, this is really what this is about. It's about alleged Racial discrimination and Sexual harrassment in her restaurants. Smart people would serve themselves well to see the outcome before passing judgement.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:07 PM, thesupe wrote:

    While I am a diabetic and unable to eat many of the things Paula Deen cooks, she has made an attempt convert some of her recipes to a more diabetic friendly food. I admire her forthright acknowledgment of her unhealthy eating habits and resulting type 2 diabetes. I found her explanation about using the racial comment equally forthright. I'm sure if she had known 30+/- years ago, that she would build an empire on Southern style cooking, food products, cookware, etc. etc. then she may have thought twice about every word that she ever thought about uttering. I'm boycotting her fair-weather supporters and I believe, if someone wanted to look at the prior acts of the CEO's of these companies they would be shocked to hear some of the things they did or said. Judge not lest ye be judged. I judge them to be unworthy of my patronage.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:13 PM, ronsunn wrote:

    It's shocking to me how people are quick to defend Paula. Deen based on little if any knowledge as to what actually occurred here. This woman sat for a 5 hour deposition which spans 149 pages. I've read it, have you? It's readily available on-line should you choose to educate yourself.

    "Paula Deen" is a carefully constructed corporate brand. But as her deposition makes abundantly clear the "Paula Deen" that is being sold in supermarkets and on the Food Network is more mythical than real. What has been marketed as "folksy southern charm" is now synonymous with racism and sexual harassment (read her deposition). This has little to do with her utterance of a word 25 years ago. It has much to do with a woman who sees nothing wrong with racist and off-color jokes and pornography in the workplace (read her deposition).

    Sadly I think that her greatest failure was placing her trust in a family member who clearly did not deserve it. She is (or was) willing to defend her brother in the face of pretty clear evidence even if it meant the demise of her empire. Perhaps she didn't see the consequences then. But based on her recent behavior I don't know if she even sees the consequences now. That's why her sponsors are abandoning her.

    This isn't a decision that was made based on the utterance of a single word. Her sponsors have undoubtedly considered all of the details of her deposition (and prior behavior). Factored in the damage done by her failure to acknowledge her diabetes and considered that this is likely the tip of the iceberg (the deposition makes clear that there is much more to this story).

    Feel free to defend the Paula Deen that you know and love from TV. But do so knowing that this is a fictional character that may bear very little resemblance to the real Paul Deen.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 4:31 PM, miriamdh wrote:

    Thank you, Ronsunn. I can't believe that people are ignorant enough to believe that Paula Deen is being crucified for an isolated racial slur decades ago. I think many choose to misunderstand and minimize the issues (the party that she admitted that she longed to throw w/ blacks dressed as slaves and dancing like they did in Shirley Temple movies, etc). I rather believe that the devotees now aghast at Deen's losing corporate backers are really terrified to live in a world where folks who previously had to grin and bear racist, sexist, and homophobic slights now can openly express how demeaning good, southern women like Deen have been.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 5:08 PM, Brenda1p wrote:

    I'm with you kwprincess . I also hope this Corporate America gets their deserved dues from all this Bashing of Paula Dean. I feel Paula Dean will come back stronger than before.

    that would be a great pay back. That's the problem nobody want's the truth anymore. And Washington is leading the way. It's sad Matt L. is more worried about something 30yrs ago than what is happening in Washington. But oh, I forgot one liar scratches another's back. And of course any person who can stand and tell the truth let along it being a Southern Woman can't happen. I just think it's outrageous that Washington and Corporate America aren't held to the same standards. I'm proud of Paula Dean she has shown the true quality of a Southern Woman. That she is not so proud she can't admit to a wrong. And to ask for forgiveness as this is what God wants from ALL of us. Let me see this come from all her accusers when all is said and done . Knowing she has done this there is no doubt she will make her come back. Her fans will be there behind her with their support as we are now Show them Paula Dean what happens when you do things the right way. God Bless You

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 5:29 PM, ronsunn wrote:

    Brenda1p - "the truth" you're in search of is staring you right in the face. It comes from the words of Ms. Deen herself and it's publicly available in the form of a 149 page deposition. The great thing about a deposition is that it's not subject to media spin or being taken out of context. This is no sound bite or snippet of information but nearly 5 hours of testimony from the accused herself. I'd invite you to read "the truth" and then explain how it reflects the "true quality of a Southern Woman."

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 5:49 PM, ctete wrote:

    Paula Deen will always be Queen of the kitchen, let the finger pointers move on. I haven't been in a Wal-Mart in 2 1/2 years and don't intend to go there. They did me dirty on a laptop and I told the manager that was the last money they get from me and it has. I worked for Wal-Mart and they are not all that they are cracked up to be. I'll follow Paula no matter what.

    I would like to know if anyone breathing right now, never made a dsicriminating remark in their?

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 11:58 PM, unclebudd wrote:

    I think Paula Deen is great, And I will support

    any thing she does. I hope she will comeback stronger than she was. I hope all the companies that dropped her will lose a lot of money. I will not shop at walmart are sears are any company that has dropped her.

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2013, at 3:33 AM, lolagirl wrote:

    ronsunn,please reread paula deens deposition believe misread a lot of it. paula does not deserve any of this and when the dust settles down, there will be a lot of people feeling quite stupid

  • Report this Comment On September 12, 2013, at 5:17 PM, jscamp598 wrote:

    I think she deserves a lot better then she is getting. I hop she comes back stronger and better then ever. I wish Oprah would put her own her channel Own that would be great. We should all ask her to do that.

  • Report this Comment On September 26, 2013, at 10:57 AM, loubon wrote:

    I THINK WE ARE ALL TIRED OF PEOPLE LIKE ronsunn telling us what to think and not to think..if that be the case every one would be all for Obama care.. let us have our own way of thinking and shut the hell up ronsunn.. And I doubt very seriously the only thing you know of emancipation is from reading, if that is possible, in the library when you have the chance to get in... the next time try to comprehend what you are reading and not just glance at the words... If Paula did happen to get back on TV you would probably be the first person in line to get a job cleaning her shoes because it sounds like to me , that's about all you could do... thanks for reading ronsoooooooon

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