The Startup
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The Startup

Forbes Asked Me If a Convicted Murderer Could Become a Brand Spokesperson…

I guess when it comes to gangsters, I’m happy Forbes knows who to ask.

Courtesy of Forbes

Do I really think a former mob hit man can make it big in the brand world? Stranger things have happened. We live in a time where bankrupt reality tv stars can become president and amateur porn stars can grace the cover of Vogue. Is it only ok to be shameless and entertain us or does the American public draw the line at committing actual crimes? Murder even? I’ve repped my fair share of Casino owners, Nightlife impresarios, NBA team owners, UFC Fighters, Pro Skateboarders and the occasional rock star. What they all have in common is a fearlessness and charisma that draws you in. They believe in themselves and don’t really care if you don’t (or they do a great job of making it appear that way.) They are the “bad boys” of business and business is good.

It is pretty hard in today’s climate to get a relative unknown any kind of “celebrity endorsement” without some pre-existing fame or a social media presence, but, as I told Richard Behar from Forbes, it would be a fun social experiment to see how far someone could get with a serious effort. I think brands are wary of attaching themselves to anyone since scrolling ten years back into someone’s life and condemning them to obscurity has become a national sport, but using a guy that actually admits to murder and only served a few years for it? The reformed gangster from this story, John Alite, wants to try.

John wonders if his personal redemption (and work with delinquent or at-risk kids) can lead to endorsement opportunities. To be sure, his face will never adorn a box of Wheaties, but Forbes kicked the question over to a branding expert, Valerie Michaels, who has specialized in working with athletes — such as pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek and Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Shaun White.

I can totally relate.

There is a large element of public fascination with people not just from the mafia but for sociopaths in general. We see the success of The Sopranos and wonder what it’s really like to commit to a life of crime just like we watch Billions and wonder what it’s like to not only have that much power and money but to actively and unabashedly seek it-even at the expense of others. But we also need to see their human side and find ways to identify with them to root for such evil underhandedness. Tony sees a therapist and has a difficult mom (check, check) and Axe goes through a divorce and likes a little sexual tension in the workplace (double check, check). Is it possible that a brand or corporation could transfer that curiosity into a message that could be received warmly by the American public?

Maybe someone like this actually cancels ‘cancel culture,” she says. How so? By being an open book about the details of his violence, perhaps no skeletons can leap forward to bite him. Moreover, she adds, “American culture loves a comeback, and with people suffering from the pandemic, this whole marketing tool of the aspirational lifestyle — wealthy celebrities lecturing people from their mansions and superficial influencers — isn’t resonating anymore. I’d love to see some forgiveness and humility play out in the media for once.”

I’ve often wondered when social media and influencers and thoughts that are only allowed 280 characters would be replaced by something else. It’s inevitable, of course, as nothing stays in fashion forever-particularly with the short attention span these platforms are now responsible for creating. If everything is so real and we can’t stop consuming content about other people’s lives-how real can it get before we get turned off and turn it off? Or is having a difficult family member and maybe crushing on your married employee more “relatable” than murder? Tony wasn’t afraid to whack someone and we still love him and Axe has more than once admitted his glee in murdering someone’s career and finances. What would we need to see from this man to really idenitfy with him enough to look the other way?

I know there’s a lot of red flags but he does see a therapist.

I think Richard Behar did an excellent job trying to show the full picture, even down to him getting my opinion. We had a lot of laughs and also did some real soul searching talking about this incredibly complex situation. He didn’t give me many details to go on with who I’d be (hypothetically) pitching, and even implored me not to google him after reluctantly revealing his name, although he did play me his rap songs with no hesitation. (DJ RapSheet?) But after reading the terrific piece he wrote, I was glad he didn’t tell my more than a few details about our subject in advance just for the pure enjoyment of reading a master at work telling a really compelling tale. Luckily, he did also send me some of John’s “merch” and it has quickly become my pandemic morning go-to.

Love the extra button and the bracelets.

Rich and I threw around some ideas for some brands and slogans that could possibly be interested and I felt that we’d need a charity angle at the very least or something that leaned into his past in either a direct way, as a warning to consumers, or in an indirect way, like a brand that understands the need for redemption. All I really had to go on was the mug, the rap, and some criminal history. Plus the fact that he’s endorsed by his FBI handler and genuinely seems to want to give back.

Michaels suggests “brands that need redemption and understand a fall from grace” might benefit from a John Alite. (For example: Papa John’s pizza, whose chairman resigned in 2019 after using a racial slur.) “Next I’d look to an inexpensive Men’s Wearhouse-type chain. John’s so dapper and I imagine a slogan like ‘When you just got out of the big house …’ Or how about a security company like ADT, with tips for how to avoid a break-in?” (In fact, an ad campaign once featured robbers who, after spotting ADT signs on lawns, moved onto the next houses. Alite, who admits to dozens of home and business invasions in three states, might be a natural.)

Richard does a very good job of painting an accurate portrait of John’s past and current life with both glowing supporters and angry detractors but I’m not sure we really gave our conversation the ‘justice’ it deserves. Disgraced pizza chain that can use some redemption and a little Italian authenticity? Bingo. And how many guys hit The Men’s Warehouse after they get out of the joint? Not only would I like to see a tie in with an awesome prison charity, it would be great to have a brand really embrace their customer base, not an influencer’s hashtag. America has more citizens imprisoned than any other country in the world. ADT? Brands are always looking to revisit old ad campaigns and this is absolutely a fresh twist on one of their signature campaigns from the 90’s. Luckily, Richard sticks to the real story here and paints an accurate picture of a complicated life from both sides of the fence. I’ve been married twice myself, I understand how the he-said, she-said of something can be very tiring and that effectively, both sides end up cancelling each other out if they continue to point the finger at the other. Once two people stop talking to each other, it’s just an echo chamber anyway and better to start a new narrative elsewhere-which is exactly what John is trying to do. I don’t think he went into this article wanting to have an argument with Gotti Jr-been there done that. I totally relate…wait- is he already selling me? It’s human nature to want to see ourselves as inherently good and our actions as logically justified, even if to others it just sounds like pointless arguing. Is there an argument for this guy to redeem himself AND profit financially? I’m not sure. So maybe he’s not Tony Soprano, or Bobby Axelrod, but I already feel myself finding a shared experience. Has the American Dream reached the reality show tipping point of being able to embrace mobsters and convicted murderers as brand ambassadors? We already elected a reality show star to the highest office in the land and his tv persona led him all the way to being the most powerful person in the world. I think the short answer is… maybe?

In all seriousness, would it get public attention? Absolutely. I’m just not sure if the risk would be worth the reward or if the attention would actually translate to consumer dollars. I think we’ve learned pretty recently that, yes, there is such a thing as bad PR. But I’m happy to say, I’ll be connecting with him soon to discuss his film options and maybe he’ll convince me he has a shot and there will be more to this story. I could see this guy building a redemption empire off of a good film or doc like Jordan Belfort with Wolf of Wall Street or Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game. I have a feeling he’s a very charming guy. The kind of guy that can get away with murder… and get himself a Forbes article.

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