Personal Branding & the Self-Destruction of Charlie Sheen


Christina Aguilera is throwing herself down the drain too. Yet nobody is as interested in her.

One wonders what it could be.

The obvious answer is that in Sheen we have the perfect storm of a celebrity gone bad. One recalls Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, and other meltdowns of late. All of them had similar ingredients: as they say, drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll.

Yet there is something about Sheen that gets us even more. I don't think it's the domestic violence angle. The wild partying. The sheer lack of remorse. The entertaining rages. Or even the fact that his character on Two and a Half Men is absolutely a version of his real self.

And no, it's not that he's Hollywood royalty. As we all know, Charlie Sheen is the son of legendary Martin Sheen, who was the embodiment of dignity and integrity as he played the President of the United States in The West Wing.

Martin Sheen also played noble labor leader in Wall Street. (Not incidentally he starred in the latter with his troubled son, and in that movie Charlie Sheen does a great job having a filmed breakdown.)

I remember showing that movie in "Introduction to Sociology," which I taught many years ago at Manhattan College. It was that good a film at portraying class divisions in the 1980s. It was that well-acted.

Wasn't it Freud who said that neuroses were typically caused by many things, not just one? If that's true then the public fascination with breakdowns like Charlie Sheen's are similarly multi-determined.

No, there is something different about this one.

It seems to me – and I could be wrong here – that the public actually adores Charlie Sheen so much that his personal brand is completely unaffected by his devolution into an insane lunatic.

For the first time that I can remember, a movie star who is publicly doing the equivalent of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, yelling "Here I go….!" Is generating nothing more than – a shrug.

As if people are saying, "Oh that's just Charlie. Nothing new or remarkable there."

What is so interesting about this colossal act of self-destruction we are watching, this long, slow suicide leap that seems like it's been going on his whole life, is that it actually reinforces the consistency of his personal brand.

Speaking completely from the perspective of branding (sorry if this seems cold), what Sheen is doing actually seems to be helping his brand, if you can believe that.

True he is out of his mind right now. But the difference between this and, say, a Tiger Woods-type PR disaster, is that Sheen never pretended to be a goody-two-shoes. Or even to be normal. On top of that, he has plumbed the psyche of his own character on Two and a Half Men pretty thoroughly.

So that by this time the public gets it: Sheen is over the top, over the edge, and gone. With the sole exception of the production set. In which place he has historically been able to get his act together.

Something else is going on too. Sheen's particular type of psychosis – the hard-partying guy determined to rock his life until he crashes and burns – is a macho stereotype. It's hard for the public to see just how messed up he is, although really we all can see it. Because we've told men it's cool to do exactly what Sheen is doing, albeit to a lesser extent and without cursing out minorities.

One is tempted to say that the public sticks with Sheen, but has turned on famous women who partied themselves into similar humiliation, because of sexism. But that doesn't hold up under the microscope. Look at Mel Gibson, whose career is finished. The public did not forgive him for knocking his wife's teeth out. And he also had the reputation for playing a "wild and crazy guy." Why?

I would posit that Mel Gibson's most notable films, such as Braveheart, portrayed him as a character who loved someone, lost them, and then fought to avenge the injustice. This was his brand. When he beat up his wife, he broke his own promise to the public – which never forgave him. (The anti-Semitic rant didn't do him in, it was the domestic violence.)

The Charlie Sheen debacle is incredibly sad. But one has to admit that it is also fascinating, and that we're talking about it not out of any real concern for him.

Rather we are all focused on the spectacle itself – we're rubbernecking at the scene of the accident.

We're thinking about what the whole thing can teach us about our culture, and how some people capture the public's attention enduringly while others flame out.

Me, the cold being that I am, I take away the brand lesson. And that is, from a personal branding perspective, you do not have to be good or nice.

Frankly (although I don't want anyone to be bad), it can really work well to be "despicable me," as long as one is despicable in basically the same way throughout one's existence. Especially in a transparent world, people can learn to tolerate a lot of things, to get used to scoundrels over the long-term.

Look at Julian Assange. Another out-of-control and far more dangerous nut, some would say a terrorist, who thinks he is a hero (!) As long as he continues to sing the same tune, his brand will remain what it is. But if he abruptly shifts what he refers to as his moral core, then suddenly everything he has ever asserted will be called into question.

The lesson for individuals, again from a branding perspective, is this: Find your core. Then stay consistent. If you do a 180 degree turnaround, it will require extensive strategizing on your part if you wish to keep the same people in your life who were there before.

No matter how much you dislike the person you used to be, if you alter your brand without explanation, they will think that you are crazy. And the people you once counted on to be your audience will vanish.

Searching for another scoundrel, perhaps, who reminds them precisely of you.


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