Opinion: It took too long for companies to cut ties with Kanye West

Oct 28 2022, 3:09 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Rachel Thexton, Principal at Thexton Public Relations, with two decades of PR and communications experience.

I remember Late Registration, Graduation, and The College Dropout; classic albums that some argue are amongst the best.

As the years passed, Kanye West released a variety of top-selling albums, becoming one of the most popular in the music industry.

In 2007, tragedy struck as his beloved mother, Donda, passed away unexpectedly following a cosmetic surgery procedure.

Soon after this tragedy, we began to see incidents of concerning and shocking behaviour. One that stands out to many is from 2009 when West stormed the stage at the MTV Music Awards as Taylor Swift accepted an award. West took over the mic, sharing his feelings on Beyonce being the artist deserving of Swift’s honour. This now seems a foreshadowing of the years to come and instability that would be both enabled and finally come crashing down this week.

Multiple large corporate partners have now dropped Kanye, now known as Ye, some after staying with him through displays of offensive and erratic behaviour.

Bank JP Morgan, fashion house Balenciaga, his talent agency CAA, Gap — which ended its tie-up with Ye in September — and even Madame Tussauds in London removed its wax figure of the celebrity.

The corporate industry delayed moves to cut ties with West, even after years of hatred-filled, ignorant, and insensitive remarks and behaviours such as antisemitism, wearing White Lives Matter clothing, and claiming that George Floyd died of fentanyl instead of police brutality. Floyd’s family has hit him with a $25 million defamation suit. Why didn’t companies drop West years sooner, when he blurted out that “slavery was a choice” and made other demeaning remarks about Black Americans?

The biggest controversy is around long-time partner Adidas, a German company that finally cut ties with West over his antisemitic remarks this week. Many feel this move comes too late and implies that financial gain was a priority over values and ethics. According to Morningstar analyst David Swartz, Ye generated an estimated $2 billion a year for Adidas, almost 10% of the company’s annual revenue.

Adidas has been heavily criticized, especially by Jewish community groups condemning its nine-year relationship with him. Adidas is said to have closed numerous stores and factories during the COVID-19 recession, raising questions regarding PR and corporate ethics.

Did mental health play into sponsorship and partnership decisions?

West has shown signs of, and spoken about his struggles with, bipolar disorder. Even with this revelation, the seriousness of his condition and the effects it likely had on his behaviour all seemed to fall on ignorant minds in corporate boardrooms.

If companies were giving West a “free pass” regarding his words and actions due to his mental health, this seemed to enable him and may have even prevented him from seeking treatment. West’s behaviour continued to intensify. This is a perfect example of the corporate world seeing mental health as a less serious health issue.

Short-term profits seem appealing, but a serious PR crisis can take years to recover from

Cancel culture is flawed and often too quick to judge but West showed instability and offensive actions over the years that were hurtful to many. Claiming that slavery never existed; voicing support for former President Trump as he made offensive statements about residents from various countries; on and off battles with the mother of his children, Kim Kardashian, followed by sudden apologies, and the list goes on.

As soon as companies like Adidas saw a pattern of erratic behaviour, they needed to act. They did not. Adidas remained silent while West made a series of antisemitic statements during interviews with Piers Morgan and Chris Cuomo. He was also banned from Twitter for posting offensive remarks about the Jewish community. Profit seemed to trump doing the right thing and once Adidas finally severed ties this week, the public was disappointed with the brand and how long a seemingly easy decision took them to act on.

Did race play into corporate decisions?

Canadians see case after case of American Black men and women killed and unfairly targeted by police. Did the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction in this case, allowing a famous man of colour to get away with saying things that were inappropriate for far too long?

I believe that many companies lack diversity training, so much so that even some leading executive teams are ill-equipped to manage issues related to race.

Of the leading executive team at Adidas, five of the six are white men. This common trend must change. We need more diversity in our corporate boardrooms, making decisions and contributing to the dialogue.

Just this week, the Vancouver Sun reported on Canadian Census statistics showing that for the first time, the proportion of people of colour in Metro Vancouver has surpassed 50%. How are BC companies reacting to and managing the meaning of our changing demographics? Are they making changes or have they already done so?

Were companies believing the “all publicity is good publicity” lie?

I don’t know who first shared this ill-advised PR counsel, but it is incorrect.

Ask United Airlines after video footage of a passenger aggressively dragged off a plane circulated worldwide. From this incident alone, the company’s stock dropped 4%, reducing the company’s market capitalization by $770 million in just one week.

Did Adidas and other companies working with West believe that simply being associated with a celebrity who was constantly in the news would benefit them and their brand reputation? I certainly hope we are past that misguided advice!

In the end, I believe that West is an individual who has hurt many but who also continues to hurt himself and his family. I believe that he needs professional help and that any company that didn’t step aside, both for his sake and for the sake of their own brand, will suffer the consequences. Mental health and cultural training as well as being less obsessed with profit over all else could have changed the last few years of this man’s life and the many he hurt as he seemed to spiral alone — while the world watched, some with popcorn in hand.

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