Martha's innocence: Are people buying it?

By Maria Puente, USA TODAY

So, is her goose cooked? Or will she still be cooking Gala Goose years from now?

Stewart pleaded innocent June 4 and has launched a support Web site.

AP

According to a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll, indicted diva Martha Stewart's public disapproval numbers have soared since the scandal broke last year over her sale of her ImClone stock. More than half the respondents say they have an unfavorable opinion of Stewart, 62. Three-quarters of those surveyed say the charges against her conspiracy, obstruction of justice, securities fraud are definitely or probably true. And nearly two-thirds say they're unsympathetic to her.

But the reaction among many ordinary consumers to Stewart's legal mess often depends on whether they loved her all along or loathed her from the beginning.

Among the latter, the spectacle of "Miss Perfect" being indicted only validates their longtime contempt. "Guilty, guilty, guilty what more is there to say?" says Meg Bandi of Appleton, Wis.

Among the former, Martha in the dock only shows their beloved as a victim, as vulnerable and human as any mortal who strove for perfection and failed. "So what if she made a mistake; she learned her lesson, didn't she?" says Danielle Curry of Atlanta.

Then there's the other, maybe larger group of Americans who take a pragmatic approach to Martha: Love her or loathe her, they're still going to buy her towels. Scott Gould, a research analyst in Washington, D.C., doesn't believe for a moment that Stewart, a former stockbroker, could have "forgotten" the basic laws of trading.

On the other hand, "if I see a shower curtain that I like, and I need a shower curtain and it happens to be from her collection, I will still buy it," Gould says.

In fact, among those who have bought Stewart's products in the past, only one out of five people say they are less likely to buy now, according to the poll.

This attitude, if it holds, could help save Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. For now, however, biz whizzes can't agree whether Martha Inc. will survive or pass from the scene as a celebrity/company/philosophy of "gracious living."

"It's over. She may limp along, but it's over," declares Christopher Byron, author of an unauthorized biography, Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Not so fast, says branding expert Al Ries, co-author of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. "Her brand is seriously damaged, but I think it will survive. The mere fact that people know the name still gives the brand some power."

But Ries also says it's a mistake for Stewart to refuse to speak out. "The court of public opinion is more important to the Martha Stewart brand than the legal court," he says. "She should be out in public, talking and explaining. That's the way to win support."

But that's not going to happen. Instead, Stewart has a new Web site, marthatalks.com, which features an e-mail address, martha@ marthatalks.com, so people can send her words of support. So far, the site has had nearly 8 million hits and more than 52,000 e-mail messages most of them positive.

"She wanted a mechanism to communicate directly with the public, to say that she was going to fight and everything is fine," says George Sard, Stewart's new crisis PR expert.

"If the question is 'Can the company survive an indictment?' this is early evidence that it can."

There's no sign yet that Stewart's troubles have affected her many businesses. After her indictment, her stock price actually went up.

Her syndicated TV show, Martha Stewart Living, has been renewed for the 2003-04 season; so far, no stations have dropped her or indicated that they might.

"Being famous or infamous, there's a very line thin between the two," says TV consultant Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group.

Kmart, her most important partner, which only just emerged from bankruptcy, hasn't dumped her and says her products continue to sell well.

Stewart's newest business partner, Bernhardt Furniture Co. in North Carolina, launched a Martha Stewart signature furniture line last year and is developing a second line. The day after she appeared in court to plead innocent, CEO Alex Bernhardt Sr. had a stack of customer orders, all dated after the news broke.

"It's good furniture, and at the end of the day, it's all about the furniture," he says.

John Small, who runs the savemartha.com Web site, predicts the government's pursuit of Stewart will lead to a backlash of support for her.

"A lot of people have jelled around the concept that it's a witch hunt," Small says. "There is damage, but it's repairable."

When USA TODAY invited readers to sound off about Stewart, more than 270 e-mail messages poured in. Two common themes: Authorities should go after "real" corporate wrongdoers, and even someone who can bake a great cherry pie is not above the law.

Polarization may be the usual reaction to Stewart, but at least some Americans are, well, conflicted. Take Gigi Campbell of Aliso Viejo, Calif. She loves Martha Stewart products for their quality and affordability. But she's also ticked off that Stewart might have used insider information for her own gain.

"It's great fun to see someone so perfect and successful take such a long, hard fall," she says. "Darn it, it's true. I'm ashamed. I love it. Welcome to our planet, Martha. We call it Earth."