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Fans of Paula Deen products better hurry to stores


Published:   |   Updated: June 25, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Tribune staff

Anyone who likes Paula Deen's cookware, foods, furniture or housewares should probably go shopping for them as soon as possible, because companies are starting to drop her brand name like a hot biscuit.

The Food Network has already said it will not renew her cooking show after Deen apologized - amid a discrimination lawsuit - for using a racial slur in the past. Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, just announced plans to cancel a partnership with Deen that had her as a spokeswoman, and had her image emblazoned on packages of ham.

QVC may soon drop her show as well, and the clock is ticking for her products on the shelf to start disappearing from Walmart and other retailers, said brand consultant Chuck Gilman, who compared the speed and ferocity of her downfall in some regards to Lance Armstrong.

"QVC shares the concerns being raised around the unfortunate Paula Deen situation. QVC does not tolerate discriminatory behavior," the company said. "We are closely monitoring these events and the ongoing litigation. We are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen, and in the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC."

For Deen's brand cache, "there will be a permanent scar, and like any scar it tends to fade, but is never permanently erased," Gilman said. "Any larger retailer will be sensitive to this, especially someone like Walmart that's under a microscope for anything they do."

Retailers regularly have quick exit clauses from vendor contracts that let them drop a celebrity almost instantly, he said, for any morality or criminality impairment, and no retailer would renew a contract for a product that reflects badly on their brand.

Retailers have another big reason for avoiding any kind of racial controversy. They are frequently named in antidiscrimination lawsuits, and none of them wants to risk giving a plaintiff more evidence that a hostile work environment exists in their operation. The thinking being that if a company keeps selling products linked to a celebrity with a known link to racial insensitivity, Gilman said, then a jury could believe managers are insensitive to workers, too.

All this blew up after a harassment lawsuit against Deen claimed she used a racial slur, and Deen quickly issued a video apology. That wasn't enough for Food Network, which said it won't renew her show. Officials with QVC say her contract is under review at their channel.

Smithfield officials issued a statement, saying "Smithfield condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind. Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen. Smithfield is determined to be an ethical food industry leader and it is important that our values and those of our spokespeople are properly aligned."

There's a lot of Deen-branded product involved. Like Oprah and Martha Stewart before her, Deen has parlayed her celebrity status on television into an entire lifestyle brand, where fans can buy scores of goods under the ethos of her personal style.

Both Macy's and Hudson's sells Paula Deen chairs, couches, desks, entertainment centers and beds, many with a country chic style, voluptuous curved legs and whitewashed color palates. Kmart sells Paula Deen seat cushions for $16.99 apiece. Besides cookware, Walmart sells a line of Paula Deen brand eyewear - reflective of the same style that she wears on her cooking shows.

rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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