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Richard Laermer

Richard Laermer

Posted: December 9, 2009 06:25 AM

Tiger - and All the Other Untrustworthy Marketing Spokesboys

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A few months ago, I started writing about celebrity athletes being a bad bet for marketers. It never occurred to me I'd be adding in Tiger Woods. I could not have imagined Woods to be a kind of guy whom advertisers might consider "unusable" because of an inability to keep his penis in his pants.

Alas, all celebrated athletes better had watch their testosterone-filled asses. Marketers who have used these celebrities as sponsors are trying to figure out what to do now more than ever before. Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys researchers, recently noted in WWD that Woods and his sponsors had created a devoted legion of fans. Their loyalty, said the report, "is some of the highest we've ever measured -- people are six times more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt than the average brand."

So let's see who else has duped the public. In the mid-2000s, heroes that we had raised up found themselves in an unsettling number of unflattering situations: The Falcons' Vick went to the dogs. San Francisco Giants' Bonds set the all-time home run record just before he was hit over the head with steroid and lying-about-it charges. Tour de France competitors were accused of doping -- and one was found guilty and then loudly stripped of his title.

Michael Vick's story is uncanny. Before he went to prison -- and then came back -- he was a character on-and offstage who had made deals with three major brands that were estimated to be worth $7 million annually. Nike's was the biggest. Vick had a fantastic deal with Upper Deck, which pulled his memorabilia and cards from its site immediately. Nike went away quietly.

Vick, I imagined, would be our country's new model O.J., never to be seen as more than an abuser. Sort of like Mike Tyson, who did all those Diet Pepsi ads with his ex-wife, Robin Givens, before going to prison for rape and then chewing on Holyfield's ear. Yet there's a lot of sick money at stake and I'm guessing the contrite Vick will get some of it again.

According to Promo magazine, overall sports sponsorship market was projected to hit at least $9.9 billion in '08, a fairly not unimpressive 10.8 percent jump over the last year.

After MasterCard stopped even thinking about sponsoring Barry Bonds in 2006 (the ink hadn't dried on the agreement), the amped slugger reportedly made $2 million in endorsement fees on top of his $15.8 million salary. Back in 2001, he spawned major short-term deals with KFC and Charles Schwab. But since 1999 he's made only two long-term, enduring endorsements -- for Fila's spikes and Franklin Sports' gloves.

Several chastened athletes have managed to keep their sponsorship deals and recoup their public images in recent years -- but these are rare and risky for the marketers. Nike stood by Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant after he was accused of rape, but Coke didn't.

There are so many examples these days that it would take a lot of posts to get through them, so instead I want to concentrate on people like Giambi, one man caught up in this bad business of steroids. In the past, he did a ton of product pitches; now no one will touch him. It all came tumbling down in December 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that it had seen Jason Giambi's 2003 grand jury testimony in the BALCO investigation.

The paper explained how the much-maligned player admitted to using several different steroids during the off-seasons from 2001 to 2003, and injecting himself with human growth hormone during the 2003 season. Giambi apologized publicly to the media and fans, although he did not specifically state what for. That may have been his big mistake: he did not come out squeaky clean, and to this day he's a pariah. Crisis Communications 101: Say exactly what you are feeling badly about. Do not mince words. Do not hide from the facts. Fans hate him now; advertisers feel the same way.

In the golf world we have John Daly, who was "abandoned" (his word) by sponsors and tournament organizers after admitting chronic gambling. His anger management problem probably didn't help things much. Daly claimed in way too many vociferous interviews how he lost between $50 and $100 million during a 12-year gambling run, then took control of his life. He never regained a golf career.

Sammy Sosa was the guy who had "the incident with the bat." He made it through okay, keeping most of his $4 million endorsements from ConAgra and Pepsi. The Cubs slugger was first tarnished with allegations of his use of performance-enhancing drugs (denied), then undercut when umpires inspecting a bat he broke found that it was plugged with cork, an illegal means of lightening bats and speeding up swings. Sosa claimed that he used the bat accidentally, and x-rays of all his other bats checked out. Due to lack of proof he emerged okay, but he's still not on top of any list.

On-performance performance (sic) is the only thing that will let these guys get away with all that bad behavior. The bad character will go away with good play. However, like always, follow the money. While the swing of the bat or the club impresses the purist fan, companies want the super-exciting, no-holds-barred superstar who spawns his own off-field hype. They want people skills--and good playing skills.

NBA wizard Dennis Rodman fired up nonstop intensity on and off the court. He was always doing something crazy with his love life or hair color that kept the tabloids gunning for him, but he had a mean layup. He's still being sued for offenses he seems to have brought onto himself. (I can't tell what he hopes to get out of the publicity.) Here's hoping he squirreled away some cash.

Never forget that being famous means being memorable. Big corporations want characters. Buzz is about who talks about whom. This fact will never change. So with that ...

David Beckham keeps bending sponsors' ears with his well-lit sense of style: his wife, his look, his whole façade is glitzy. How he plays has been secondary. He moved to America in 2007, launched a "scent," and toyed with playing half a gay couple on Desperate Housewives. (His "mate" was scheduled to be expensive singer Robbie Williams who, like Becks, opted against this career-defining coupledom!) Beckham has yet to procure corporate riches in his new country, except inside celebrity magazines that do not pay him. Well, not yet.

The soccer star doesn't have much game left. No one can sustain a career on glitz -- no one. Should Beckham sit on the bench, he will become one of a slew of Who Again? in the sports world. Either he does superbly on the field or Mr. Posh will always be known as sport's biggest flameout. $250 million can only buy so many appearances on TMZ.

The final stop in my tour of poorly-timed sports marketing missteps: the soon-to-be-boring soap opera of Tiger and his lillies. Woods was an untouchable until a mere two weeks ago; now sports marketers don't what to do with him. When Gatorade drops him, however, it's not because of how he treated his wife, children and fans. It's a tough world for sugary drinks! Lively waters are coming down the field at every turn and the competition is eating their lunch. There are many players gunning for "G" and no corporate parent will let a tainted spokesperson get the attention when it's the drink that counts.

Because in the end marketing, like sports, touts the winner with good news potential.

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