The National Enquirer has released a tape of Duane 'Dog' Chapman using the 'n-word' numerous times during a phone conversation while telling his son to break up with his African-American girlfriend. He says if he or the team slips and says the n-word in front of the girlfriend, she'll tell the Enquirer and ruin "everything."
Unfortunately for Chapman, someone gave the Enquirer a tape of the conversation and it will ruin everything. Why? The essence of the Bounty Hunter brand is justice, and justice is about treating people equally, regardless of who they are, right? During his television shows Chapman espouses the belief that even the people he takes prisoner are his brothers and sisters, and that no matter how badly one errs one can be redeemed---once they serve their time. He's savvy enough to know that dropping the n-bomb is incongruous with that philosophy.
This incident will inevitably spur comparisons with the Don Imus controversy that ensued when he insulted the Rutgers womens basketball team and lost his show. But Imus will get another show because his brand is supposed to be shocking, outrageous and controversial. He might even have enhanced his brand by pushing the proverbial envelope over the edge.
The mistake that Chapman made was thinking he could maintain the dissonance between the brand manifestation and brand essence. But that balancing act was doomed to fail because the essence is the heart and soul of the brand, and it can't be faked forever.
When Andersen Accounting was indicted for shredding Enron audit documents in 2002 they lost all their clients virtually overnight because the essence of the Andersen brand---honesty and responsibility to investors over clients---was destroyed. The essence of the brand is what brand followers value above all else. With that destroyed no company wanted the Andersen Accounting brand on their audit. In the short-term no advertiser will want to risk being associated with Dog the Bounty Hunter because they know it will be seen as a tacit endorsement of the now damaged brand.
Stakeholders have to live the brand every day, even behind the scenes or in 'private phone calls.' It remains to be seen whether the damage to the 'Dog' brand is irreparable; it doesn't look good. Chapman's only chance is to convince fans and sponsors that the taped call was out of character and that his contrition is real and not simply an effort to protect his income. Expunging the n-word from his vocabulary might be a good place to start.
UPDATE (11/2/07): A&E has "indefinately suspended" airings of 'Dog, The Bounty Hunter' and at least two advertisers have withdrawn their ads from the show.
Photo source: Book jacket from "You Can't Run, You Can't Hide," by Duane Dog Chapman