Close-Up: Live Issue - Is Kate Moss still a good brand icon?

Noel Bussey asks whether Virgin Mobile is taking a risk in using the model in its latest campaign.

In the week that Virgin Mobile aired the first ad to star its new brand spokesperson, the model Kate Moss, The Sun ran a front-page story under the headline: "The UK's Moss wanted," revealing that the Metropolitan Police still wants to talk to her in relation to pictures in the Daily Mirror showing her snorting cocaine.

Virgin Mobile's decision to sign up the model, who has failed to return to the UK since the story broke in September last year, has raised a number of eyebrows. Typically, brands part company with their spokespeople at any hint of controversy. Churchill dropped Vic Reeves from one of its ads after the comic crashed his car and was charged with drink-driving.

The concern is that Virgin Mobile aims its advertising at the impressionable young adult/teen market, and by using Moss, it is making light of the situation and possibly glamorising drug use, showing that users can still be successful icons.

However, James Kydd, the brand director at Virgin Mobile, doesn't believe the appointment raises any moral questions.

"A lot of people have tried drugs, and we've employed a number of people in the past who have had problems with addiction, so it's not massively out of character for our brand," Kydd says.

"We've done the right thing by using Kate. We wouldn't use someone like Pete Doherty, who hasn't confronted his issues. He wouldn't work as a brand icon."

Hamish Pringle, the director-general of the IPA, agrees, but with a caveat: "The media love a fall from grace and recovery. The Virgin Mobile brand is associating itself with a recovery. It's brave of it, because the story is not over yet - it could still go very wrong. At the moment, it's still at the stage of allegation. If this changes, and something illegal happens, that's generally when brands get scared and drop people."

But what of the worry that Moss' cachet with the younger audience could lead to some trying to emulate her behaviour? Dylan Williams, the strategy director at Mother, who works on the Frank account (the Home Office's drugs information service), believes that children know about drugs and need to be informed intelligently and that Virgin Mobile's use of Moss will achieve that.

"It is far better to acknowledge the problem and let youngsters know that help is available," he says.

The original Daily Mirror story led to Moss being dropped from a number of high-profile and extremely profitable modelling contracts, including H&M, Chanel, Burberry and Rimmel.

However, after the furore died down, both H&M and Burberry decided to renew their contracts - unexpected actions that show that the model is still regarded by many as a strong icon for a brand.

While it is hard to believe any brand wouldn't have had slight concerns about using such a controversial figure, the weight of support for the model appears to reveal the company made the right decision in using her.

David Golding, the planning director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says: "You have to think to what extent has her image been tarnished by these stories. The bigger story was how many companies dropped her and then took her back. To me this is proof that she is a great brand icon."

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DRUGS COUNSELLOR - Martin Barnes, chief executive, DrugScope

"Yes, she was using drugs, but she went through a month's intensive rehabilitation and people who face their demons and come out the other side should be given the chance to continue doing their work.

"As for Virgin Mobile aiming a lot of its advertising at a younger market, there is no evidence to show that people in the limelight taking drugs necessarily influences young people to start using drugs themselves. Context is important."

MARKETER - James Kydd, brand director, Virgin Mobile

"She is a great brand icon because she is a true A-list celebrity. She has got incredible brand appeal because she is admired around the world for her status and because of the way she faced her problem.

"We don't feel morally exposed at all by using her because the action she has taken is the correct action. As a brand, we have no issue at all using her because she is by far the best celebrity we have ever had and, from a PR point of view, it is clearly a very good thing because the interest in her is so great."

STRATEGY DIRECTOR - Dylan Williams, strategy director, Mother

"For Virgin, targeting a younger audience, I think that using Kate Moss is a great move because her recent troubles added to her brand equity - that's just the way our society is these days.

"What she has is an authenticity, as well as a rebellious side, that young people respect.

"Young people today are media-conscious and know that supermodels, film stars, musicians and even journalists take drugs, so the original story about Kate would not have been a massive shock. And the fact that she is moving herself away from that life works as a positive example."

EDITOR - Jane Ennis, editor, Now magazine

"The UK doesn't like good-as-gold, squeaky-clean celebrities, so Kate's recent problems will have given her an extra edge.

"I can't see her on the front of a cornflakes packet, but she suits Virgin Mobile.

"I believe that to start moralising about the drug allegations is ridiculous: you have to credit people with the intelligence to make up their own minds."

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