On Thursday, Minnesota-based Target Corp. announced it would phase out its line of pots and pans from Southern gruelmarm Paula Deen, giving the chain a tiny walk-on in a sprawling Dixie epic.
The move inevitably drew complaints that Target either capitulated to the politically correct, or conversely, waited too long to sever ties to Deen, who acknowledged in a deposition she had once used the “N-word” many years ago. The controversy has driven nearly every corporate sponsor from Deen.
Target was in a no-win situation. As the controversy grew, the company would be blamed for both action and inaction, because the emotions of race and class that bookend this issue are way beyond the control of a mere retailer.
“There is no rule of thumb [on when to cut ties with a celebrity brand],” said Jon Austin, who does crisis communications. Celebrity ties “are by nature dangerous, an act of trust. For Target and Paula Deen, this was an easy one.”
Austin said Deen’s cooking line wasn’t anywhere as important to Target as, say, Nike’s bond with Tiger Woods, so they wouldn’t likely have done the due diligence most companies do in substantial alliances with celebrities.
No doubt they’ve done so by now, Austin said, and made the decision based on a broader set of information.
Deen supporters clamor that she’s a victim of a time and place, based on one unfortunate word choice decades ago. They probably haven’t read her disposition, or that of the former employee who sued Deen and her brother, who ran Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in Savannah, Ga.
I’ve read the 400 pages of testimony from Deen and the employee, Lisa Jackson and, as often goes in issues of race, it’s both more nuanced and more egregious than advertised. It reads like a screenplay written by William Faulkner and acted out on Saturday Night Live.
“Midnight in the Kitchen of Good and Evil,” without much of the good.
The hometown paper, the Savannah Morning News, has largely supported Deen, saying she is “entitled to a cup of forgiveness.”
They’ve also shown that Jackson and her attorney were clearly threatening to “squeeze” Deen unless she forked over more than $1 million. Jackson, no surprise, has a problematic past and acknowledged she never heard Deen herself say anything racist.
But if a smidgen of the claims about behavior at Bubba’s are true, Deen at least ignored shocking behavior by her brother and others, including drug and alcohol abuse, daily racist and sexist remarks, pornography and even assault.
Deen’s own testimony is tone deaf to racial sensitivity and sexual harassment. In trying to explain why she wanted to hold a Southern plantation-style wedding for her brother, staffed by black men in tuxedos, she said she wanted to capture “an era in which there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people” before the Civil War.
And those men would be slaves?
“Yes. I would say they were slaves,” Deen said.
It goes on from there.
Sure, it was Deen’s brother’s restaurant, but she bankrolled and sustained it while it piled up $300,000 in debt. She even hired a human resources firm to assess workplace problems, then ignored the findings that there was a huge discrimination lawsuit at risk.
I visited Savannah a few years ago. When I told locals that I was writing a travel story, several of them begged me to avoid Deen’s restaurants. Not because they thought she was racist, but because her food was bad and she made them look like hicks.