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Sheen knows it's good to be bad

Photo Credit: TMS Illustration/Jennifer Kohnke

Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist and the author of "Bust," a book on the Greek debt crisis.

 

It would take most of us a few dozen lifetimes to amass 2 million followers on Twitter. Charlie Sheen managed it in less than a week.

Last month, CBS discontinued the hit comedy show "Two and a Half Men" after Sheen's public jousting with senior management over a binge that the wild-man actor has described as "epic" and "radical." Since then, he has become one of the biggest names on the planet.

What is fascinating about this whole fandango isn't Sheen's public dramas. It is the way he has given us a master-class in modern media promotion and how Wall Street shareholders, who ultimately own his former employer, have allowed themselves to be so completely outwitted.

Big companies seem to expect their celebrities to have stepped straight out of a 1950s suburb. From Kate Moss to Tiger Woods to Charlie Sheen, any hint of "inappropriate" behavior has the sponsors cowering.

And yet if there is a single lesson to be learned from the last decade, it's that the public -- or the customer -- is more forgiving. In fact, the more outrageously a celebrity behaves, and the less contrition he or she shows, the more we find them alluring. It pays to be bad, and slightly nutty as well.

If CBS can't figure that out, perhaps it's time the shareholders changed the management. Sheen knows a lot more about how 21st-century business operates than they do.

Sheen has clearly struck a nerve. His over-the-top partying isn't just amusing. It is the kind of escapism that audiences want. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has been an iconic figure for 40 years with his excessive lifestyle, so it wasn't surprising to see that his autobiography topped the best-seller charts over Christmas. We don't want celebrities who come across as drab and boring.

When British model Kate Moss was photographed taking drugs, her sponsors ran for cover. But Moss soon came back as popular as ever. Golfer Tiger Woods was dropped by many of his corporate backers after his chaotic love life was revealed. But so what? Tiger's back on the circuit, and once his swing is restored to its best, it's a fair bet the sponsors will show up again.

Sheen's new army of followers on Twitter suggests his audience is rooting for his return. Anyone can see he will bounce back a bigger star than ever. If CBS doesn't rehire him, someone else will.

The odd thing is that he was dropped at all -- and that shareholders didn't demand the board's resignation. After all, the company made some catastrophic errors of judgment.

First, Sheen doesn't offer moral guidance to anyone. If he wants to party like a wild animal, that's his business. He's a fine actor, as movies such as "Platoon" (1986) and "Wall Street" (1987) showed. It's ridiculous to think he should behave like a Sunday school teacher. Since when were sitcom stars expected to be celibate teetotalers?

Second, he's the talent. A hedge fund wouldn't fire the star trader if he were a drug user or an alcoholic. It would have to get rid of half the staff if it did. A publishing house doesn't drop its biggest-selling writer because he or she keeps a bottle of vodka next to the computer. There would be far fewer books to read if it did. Media companies need stars more than stars need media companies. It's that simple.

Third, and most important, they have misunderstood the way modern celebrity works. We actually like the famous to be flamboyant, larger-than-life figures. They are fantasy characters through whom many people live vicariously. We like them to live outrageous lives. They do stuff that most of us don't but are happy to read about, and laugh about. It increases their appeal. Sheen is simply the latest example of that.

CBS doesn't appear to get that. Neither does Wall Street. Fame is the essential raw material for any corporation in the entertainment industry. They should realize that Sheen, even with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a porn star in the other, knows much more about business than they do.

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