Athletes in Advertising

The 2021 Tokyo, Japan Olympics are here. Now so far (Tuesday 27th July), team GB have managed to win 4 gold medals. Which is amazing and super exciting! Tom Daley and Matty Lee, for diving. Adam Peaty and Thomas Dean in swimming. And Thomas Pidcock in cycling. 

The Olympics is a mammoth event, known for taking years to plan. The stadium for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, cost $770 million dollars to construct. By 2006 the final cost was $1.47 billion and took 30 years to pay off. There is a lot of exposure your brand can get from the ceremony. Brands pay a fortune to be able to have their advertisement shown during the time the show is being broadcasted. Another way of getting your brand exposure during the games is through athlete endorsement. Some huge Olympic stars have become the face of campaigns. I am going to take my time breaking down the pros and cons of using Olympic athletes to endorse a product. Is it mutually beneficial for both brand and athlete to partner to create a successful campaign?

The advert I can remember seeing a lot when I was younger, was Mo Farah endorsing Quorn, the vegetarian food company. Growing up in a veggie household me and my mum were big fans of his support of the meat-free movement. After his 2012 gold medal win in the 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre races at the 2012 London Olympics. Farah, a vegetarian himself, was used in Quorn’s 2014 advertising campaign. The project called ‘Healthy Protein’ has the runner’s voice-over suggesting the consumer to start eating Quorn. It infers that the protein that Quorn gives you is enough to be a successful athlete and features Mo running in a race. I believe this advert really works, as using an actual athlete for a health and nutrition product, gives the advertisement and star more of a relation. Also, the fact that Mo Farah is vegetarian himself, makes what he is saying more believable. 

Usain Bolt went straight to Olympic fame when he won a gold medal at the 2002 world junior championships in Kingston. He was just 15 years old at the time taking part in the 200-metre race, becoming the youngest-ever male world junior champion in any event. He went on to win eight Olympic gold medals, create three world records, and is considered the best sprinter there has ever been. Back in 2012, he was featured on a Virgin Media advert sporting a Richard Branson goatee. It was a comedic advert, doing his signature pose. A BBC article quotes ‘The pay-TV and the broadband firm said it added 39,500 customers in the three months to end-September, compared with 6,300 for the same quarter last year. Revenue was up 2.8% to £1.03bn for the three months. Virgin said the percentage of people dropping the service during the quarter fell from 1.7% to 1.4%.’ However Watchdog, an advertising moderating agency, claimed that the advert was misleading. Sky came forward to question the claim that Virgin offered ‘5 times faster download speed’. The ASA, (Advertising Standards Authority), said that the advert was considered false and was not allowed to run again. This damages the brand but it is also very damaging to Bolt’s integrity as an athlete and a person. The promises he is scripted to say in the advert come from his mouth. 

A very successful campaign for both star ambassador and brand was when Jessica Ennis-Hill worked together with Santander. After the success of Ennis in the 2012 Olympics, winning a gold medal, by 2013 they had established a partnership in which Ennis would become their next star ambassador. Santander is well known for partnering with sports stars, like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. However, the brand acknowledged they did not have any female sports ambassadors, which cut out a huge portion of their market audience. Santander claims that its use of sports stars has raised its UK brand awareness from 20% to 94%. They continued to make a televised advert together, for Santander’s 123 credit card. I think this was a successful partnership as it allowed Santander to become more personable and utilize the success of their spokesperson in a major competition. It also allowed Ennis’s cult following to expand into different genres than just sport, like Olay, with skincare and beauty and cars like Jaguar.

Back at the 1994 Winter Olympics, Lillehammer, Norway, Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of Tonya Harding, arranged an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, her biggest competitor. Harding was later banned for life both from competing in USFSA-sanctioned events and from becoming a sanctioned coach, ending her career in skating. This star endorsement is less of a fail and more of an interesting observation of what a brand and star can do. Tonya walks around an office with the message that everyone who makes a mistake deserves a second chance especially when it comes to obtaining car insurance. For Direct Auto Insurance, the disgraced Olympian pokes some fun at herself by saying that ‘we’ve all made mistakes.’ The company also uses other controversial stars in their advertisements like Rapper Fat Joe, who was imprisoned for tax evasion, and NFL star, Johnny Manziel, who is riddled with controversies. The company state ‘Direct Auto Insurance believes in giving them, and you, a second chance. We wanted to develop a creative campaign  that celebrates that idea in a fun yet poignant way.’ This use of redeemed stars is unusual as these people are disliked by many, so using them to advertise a product is slightly off. But the reasoning does make sense, that these well-achieved people have also had great lows. They are trying to be personal with their customers. 

In conclusion, the process of using athletes in your advertisement is a successful one for both brand and athlete. For a brand to use an athlete to propel their advert off the success of the largest event in the world is an appealing idea. I do believe that every year the Olympics are riddled with controversy, multiple doping scandals, racism, crime, etc. There have been in total 114 controversies since the start of the Olympics since 1908, London Summer Olympics. Endorsing an athlete can be dangerous as you could end up damaging your brand with their use. However as prooved in the Direct Auto Insurance example, sometimes that can be to your advantage. 

Stewart Russell-Moya

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