Why is corporate America enabling Sheen? Maria Elena Fernandez talks to executives who opened doors for him a year after his meltdown.
In last week’s episode of the TV show Anger Management, Charlie Sheen’s real-life ex-wife Denise Richards made an appearance as a new love interest for his character.
“My ex can be a little difficult,” the character said to the fictional Charlie when they first meet. “Nuts. A total maniac. A real whack job.”
“We get it,” he replied as the laugh track on the FX comedy roared. It was an inside joke the whole country was in on—the tabloid-ready former couple and parents of two girls were clearly poking fun at their tumultuous past and capitalizing on the fact that distinguishing Sheen’s public persona from the characters he’s chosen to play on television is nearly impossible.
As the 46-year-old actor works on moving past his Vatican Assassin Warlock period toward being perceived as a divorced dad on the self-improvement track on camera and off, making fun of himself has become his signature shtick. While it remains uncertain how much of that self-deprecation is for show and how much of it he really means, what is clear is that it is good for business. Sheen may have lost the most lucrative job he’ll ever have when he was fired from CBS’ Two and a Half Men in 2011 during a very public meltdown, but a year after he declared he was a “rock star from Mars” during a drug binge that he never went to rehab for, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of companies that are willing to give him a break.
DirecTV hired Sheen for a spot in which his “downward spiral,” as an executive put it, was front and center, and it earned the satellite company the prestigious Gold Lion advertising award at Cannes. Fiat cast him in their “House Arrest” ad, which features Sheen driving the car inside a mansion populated with gorgeous models and wearing an ankle bracelet. And FX ordered a comedy series starring and produced by Sheen, loosely based on the film Anger Management. That part of Sheen’s sentence when he pleaded guilty in August 2010 to third-degree misdemeanor assault on his ex wife, Brooke Mueller, included anger management counseling is supposed to be part of the joke.
But who, exactly, is laughing? And why is corporate America so willing to look the other way for a celebrity who sabotaged the best gig in Hollywood by missing work because of his all-night partying and drug use, disparaging his bosses on the radio, television, and a live tour, and refusing to do in-patient rehab, and who has twice pleaded guilty to violent acts against women in his life?
In interviews in June, Sheen stopped making the nonsensical comments (read: tiger blood) that made his popularity soar last year, but he’s not really toning it down that much. He made it clear to Rolling Stone he’s still drinking. “I don't see what's wrong with a few drinks. What's your drink? Tequila? Mine's vodka. Straight, because I've always said that ice is for injuries, ha ha." He told The New York Times he should not have to provide his new employers with any assurances of his continued health. “They knew what they were getting,” he said. “And they know it’s not always going to be smooth sailing.”
“You don’t get the impression that he’s making an effort to reassess his life and make it better necessarily,” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company, which measures the familiarity and appeal of brands and celebrities. “He’s saying what he is doing is fine. But the one thing he has done, which I have to give him credit for, is that he didn’t just sit back and let the media just pound away at him. He came forward and reacted.”
“I don’t have the specifics on the things that you’re alleging,” said DirecTV senior vice president of marketing.
In turn, Sheen is more well-known and more polarizing than ever, according to his Q score. Immensely popular at the height of his run on the high-rated Two and a Half Men, Sheen is now familiar to 87 percent of Americans six years of age and older, a seven percent increase in his status prior to his Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour. But even as he’s become more of a household name, the number of people who dislike him also went up, increasing his negative score from 31 to 47 in just one year. The average celebrity registers a negative score of 26, Schafer said. Sheen, however, remains very popular among 18-to-34-year-old men, who happen to be the toughest demographic to reach in media and marketing.
“It looks like from everything that transpired, it was his female appeal that got hit the hardest,” Schafer said. “He’s a complete turn-off to women right now, whereas, back in the day, at the height of Two and a Half Men, he was way above average with female consumers. He’s lost most of his consumer strength with women of all ages and men 35 and older. But young males, 18 to 34, were relatively unaffected by all of his ranting and raving. They actually like him as much as they did before, so if you’re a marketing person and you’re seeing that you have someone that can really attract that hard-to-find consumer group, then maybe Charlie’s a good approach because he’s going to create both awareness and emotion.”
That was Fiat’s thinking in casting Sheen in a commercial for the male-skewing high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth. In the spot, Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia greets Sheen after he takes a joy ride through a mansion. “I love being under house arrest,” Sheen says ogling her. “What do I get for good behavior?” The answer seems to be “plenty.” In addition to Sheen’s fee for the ad, Fiat also agreed to sponsor Anger Management for the first season.
Although Fiat executives declined to be interviewed, a spokeswoman said they would respond to a few questions over e-mail. But none would address the company’s willingness to hire Sheen despite his unremorseful attitude in the media and his violent past with women except to write: “The Fiat 500 Abarth is the small but wicked personality of the Fiat 500 and the commercial captures that attitude and spirit. As the bad boy of the Fiat vehicle lineup, we felt that Charlie Sheen personified the edgy and fun characteristics of the Fiat 500 Abarth.”
DirecTV, which has previously hired Sheen for two other commercials, also chose to look at the fun side of Sheen because that aspect of his brand connects with his customers, said Jon Gieselman, senior vice president of marketing. DirecTV appeals to men ages 35 to 54, a group where Sheen is now registering only average scores in terms of his appeal. Before he was fired from Two and a Half Men, Sheen was wildly popular with middle-aged men, according to his Q score. Even so, Gieselman said the campaign succeeded in bringing in new business to DirecTV.
“I wanted to be the first to bring Charlie back,” Gieselman said. “I know it was somewhat controversial, but he was absolutely up for it. Obviously there was a subtle—maybe not so subtle—connection between the downward spiral that happens when you have cable and the bit of a spiral that Charlie experienced last year. That’s why it was funny. Charlie thought it was really funny.”
When asked whether he has considered Sheen’s history, Gieselman claimed ignorance. In addition to the Christmas 2009 incident involving his ex, Sheen pleaded guilty in 1997 to attacking his then girlfriend, Brittany Ashfield. In 2006, Denise Richards obtained a restraining order in Los Angeles after telling the judge she was in fear for her life because of Sheen.
“I don’t have the specifics on the things that you’re alleging,” Gieselman said. “I don’t know if they happened or not. As I said, his perception at the moment in time was perfectly aligned with what we were trying to communicate in the TV spot, so from our judgment, it helped the communication. There are a lot of different aspects to the Charlie brand. Some people identify with it and some people don’t.”
In fact, before Sheen quit Twitter last week, he had amassed nearly 8 million followers. According to Nielsen, 5.5 million people watched the premiere of Sheen’s new show on June 28. That figure had dropped to 2.7 million by the July 19 episode, but it still signifies a success for the actor and the network. FX president John Landgraf took some heat in the press earlier this year when he said at a press conference that he believes in redemption and that the show “could be a really good thing, not only for Charlie but it could be a good thing for society.”
Although Sheen is still appearing to embrace his dark side, Landgraf said in an interview that he sees evidence in how the actor handles himself personally and professionally that he does want to live his life differently now.
“I don’t think that Charlie is interested in redefining himself the way any other person would want to redefine him,” Landgraf said. “He’s a private individual and my concern is his professional life, where I have my partnership with him. All I can tell you is that I see a guy who is working hard to stay connected to his family, to his family of origin, as well as his kids and ex wives, who is trying to progress in his life. Is he going to be contrite in the way that some people would like him to be contrite? No, I don’t really think that’s Charlie’s style. I think his style is relatively transparent. I don’t think he puts himself forth as a paragon of virtue.”
Landgraf has not decided if he will renew Anger Management for an additional 90 episodes as the unique deal between FX, Sheen, and Lionsgate calls for. But the show’s performance as well as other consumer awareness data indicates there’s an appetite for Sheen and the show, Landgraf said.
“Charlie’s not popular with everybody,” Landgraf said. “But he’s got an enormous fan base that, for the most part, has really stuck with him. I think that people who don’t like Charlie are not going to be satisfied with anything he does. Everyone is entitled to their feelings and opinions but the notion that somehow I and all other executives in the entertainment industry need to be deputized to enact their sense of justice on Charlie doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I will come down if there’s something that rises to the level of criminal act because I’m a part of a publicly traded company and responsible to do so. But barring that, I’m not his rabbi and I’m not his priest.”