With Oakley’s announcement that it will no longer support Lance Armstrong on Monday after the International Cycling Union stripped him of his Tour de France titles, the cyclist was officially dropped from all of his major corporate sponsors.
But according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, his chances (at least as a cancer activist) to bounce back like so many disgraced athletes and celebrities before him may lie in consumers’ ability to separate people’s personal transgressions from their good deeds.
According to the study, fans and consumers engage in psychological process called “moral decoupling” — the act of judging a notable figures’ morals separately from their actions or performances as athletes, businessmen or heads of charities.
“By dissociating performance from morality, one can support an immoral actor without being subject to self-reproach,” the study notes.
This same reasoning allows fans to look past Tiger Woods’ infidelity, or rape and infidelity allegations against Kobe Bryant and support them as athletes, said study co-author Jonathan Berman, a researcher at the Wharton School of Business.
For Bryant and Woods, fans easily separated their performance on the golf course and basketball court from any moral transgressions. The study points out the same worked for Martha Stewart in the business world and numerous politicians, most notably Bill Clinton, who left the Oval Office with a high approval rating despite a notorious affair with a White House not far in his past.
Moral decoupling also gives supporters a way out with critics who question how they can support such an immoral figure.
“You don’t have to go to someone and say ‘I think cheating on a spouse is not a big deal’, Berman said. “No one wants to say that but a lot of people won’t disagree with you if you say ‘I don’t care about his personal life, I care about his performance’”
In Armstrong’s case, that may mean his Livestrong Foundation, which named a new chairman after he stepped down last week amid the controversy, may be left intact despite the scandal.
While Armstrong is painted as a bully and a cheat in cycling, his and Livestrong’s work in the cancer community is still unquestioned.
“They have to distance [Armstrong’s] bad actions from the cause and say explicitly ‘He may be a bad guy but that shouldn’t detract at all the good the cause is doing,” Berman said.