Össur, Oscar Pistorius, and the Danger of Celebrity Endorsements

Six months ago I wrote about the marketing coup orthopedics maker Össur scored when Oscar Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics on a pair of the company's Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic legs. As a member of Team Össur, a group of elite international athletes who use Össur's products and serve as spokespeople for the company, Pistorius was a star of Össur's marketing efforts. 

At the time, Össur CEO Jon Sigurdsson told me that though the publicity the company enjoyed from Pistorius's appearances this summer in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games didn't directly increase sales, it did help boost the company's image. “We cannot use this to sell more products in the short term, but it is very good for the company in the long term,” he said.


But today Össur got a taste of the unintended consequences of celebrity endorsements. Pistorius has been charged with murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. The company issued the following statement on its Web site in response to the news:


Regarding the news of a tragic shooting accident involving athlete Oscar Pistorius in South Africa this morning, Össur would like to offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased, Reeva Steenkamp. As we await the outcome of the police investigation, our thoughts are with all affected parties during this difficult time."


Pistorius's troubles are unlikely to hurt the company's sales, just as his successes likely did not result in a rush to buy its products. As Siggurdsson told me this summer, consumers only buy Össur's products if they have to, and even then, reimbursement and the opinions of healthcare providers play a bigger part in the decision of which type of prosthetic to buy than the fact that a celebrity uses the same product.


Today’s events are just another example of how hitching your company’s marketing wagon to a celebrity’s star can be a liability, as other companies (including Nike, which ran an unfortunate ad likening Pistorius to “a bullet in the chamber”) have discovered. 


Jamie Hartford is the managing editor of MD+DI.

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