In Quebec, brands distance themselves from their spokespersons’ anti-vaxx views

Hyundai Canada has parted ways with its longtime Quebec spokesperson Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge (main picture) after the actor and director publicly stated that he would not be getting vaccinated against Covid-19 for the time being.

In a post shared to his Facebook and Instagram accounts on Friday, Lemay-Thivierge confirmed that his nearly 13-year relationship with the automaker had ended. “It’s not without emotions that I announce to you, for the reasons that you know well, that the relationship which I have had for almost 13 years with the Hyundai company is coming to an end today,” he said. “I thank them for these great years and wish them much success.”

The Quebec actor and director had been thrust into the public eye a day earlier, when La Presse reported that he would not be directing the police drama District 31 this fall over his refusal to get the covid vaccine. The story reported that Lemay-Thivierge had spoken openly of his opposition to vaccines, describing them as “brainwashing.”

But in a post on his social media channels on Friday, Lemay-Thivierge—who is also serving as host of Chanteurs masqués, the TVA network’s French version of The Masked Singersaid that he favoured receiving the Quebec vaccine Medicago, which has not yet been approved.

“In a mutual decision, the partnership between Hyundai Auto Canada and Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge will come to an end,” said Hyundai Canada’s director of marketing Christine Smith in a statement provided to The Message. “We appreciate Mr. Lemay-Thivierge’s 13 years of dedication to Hyundai, and wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Smith said it’s too soon to comment on Hyundai’s future plans, but noted that the company and its agency partners are “swiftly developing new content and programs specifically for Quebec to ensure the region is well-supported from a marketing perspective.”

The announcement came only a week after Walmart distanced itself from another Quebec actor, Anne Casabonne, after she expressed anti-vaccination views. In a long post on Facebook, which has received more than 20,000 comments and been shared more than 15,000 times, Casabonne dismissed the vaccines as “big shit,” and labelled Quebec Premier François Legault and Minister of Health Christian Dubé as “clowns.”

Casabonne had appeared in ads for Walmart and its Accès Pharma division, although Le Journal de Montréal quoted Walmart Canada as saying that she stopped being the spokesperson for their pharmacies, a role she had held since 2014, last spring.

“Walmart Canada and the pharmacists affiliated with Accès Pharma at Walmart do not share the opinions expressed by Anne Casabonne in her publications on social networks,” Le Journal de Montréal quoted spokesperson Steeve Azoulay as saying.

The newspaper reported that Walmart had scrubbed all of the videos starring Casabonne from its social channels, although the publication did manage to capture copies before they disappeared. According to the newspaper, Casabonne had shot a video for Walmart in October in which she promoted flu vaccines while wearing a mask.

In a follow-up post on Facebook on Sept. 19, Casabonne said that her original post wasn’t meant to express anti-vaccine sentiment, but was talking about the division that has arisen between those who choose to get vaccinated and those who don’t.

“It’s only that I was telling myself, ‘If I’m vaccinated, they’re trying to tell me what to think of the people who are not vaccinated? Why are they saying I should denigrate them? That I should be afraid of them. That I should despise them.’ We’re using this vaccine to divide when a vaccine isn’t supposed to do that.”

Casabonne also stressed that she is no longer affiliated in any way with Walmart. “It’s possible that in people’s mind I am associated with this great Quebec pharmacy group Accès Pharma, which is affiliated with Walmart. But I am no longer their spokesperson anyway. It’s all fine,” she said. “If this association existed, it’s normal that they would want to dissociate if they’re not in agreement.”

The incidents should serve as “cautionary tales” for marketers who want to build their brand by using celebrities, said Éric Blais, president of Toronto agency Headspace Marketing, which works extensively in the Quebec market. Using celebrities is a particularly effective approach in Quebec, which has developed a strong star system and where actors, sports stars and their agents are often “quite agreeable” to aligning with brands where there is an appropriate fit, he said.

“There is some due diligence involved, but nothing like vetting a senior public official. After all, we’re signing the celebrity’s public persona,” said Blais. “The belief is generally that what they think or do privately is their business. That’s usually true until it becomes public. And although most agreements include morality clauses, the damage is done when it kicks in.”

Blais said that Cassabone and Lemay-Thivierge had been “effective spokespeople” over the years, and their brand partners were likely caught off-guard by their public statements on the vaccines. “How could either Walmart or Hyundai have anticipated that the pandemic and their views on vaccination [would] jeopardize these lucrative contracts?”

It’s not the first time that brands and their celebrity spokespeople have parted ways over anti-vaccination views. In 2014, the insurance company State Farm ousted its spokesperson Rob Schneider for his views on vaccination after a social media campaign called on the company to end an ad in which he reprised his Saturday Night Live character “the copy guy.”

In a recent article entitled “Anti-vaxx celebrities are coming out of the woodwork,” New York magazine’s The Cut listed several minor celebrities including Schneider, rapper Offset, model Hanwar Hadid and actor Chet Hanks who have all endorsed “anti-vaccine sentiments” over the past year.

According to the Covid-19 Tracker Canada, 84.1.% of people 12+ in Quebec have been fully vaccinated, compared with the national average of 80.7%.

Chris Powell