Does sporting celebrity still sell?

This is an article by Tom McGovern.
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Sport has always produced stars who inspire people, and for the last 50 years marketers have tried to use this to sell products and promote campaigns. However, in a world where consumers have become far less susceptible to such ploys, is the role of celebrity endorsement becoming obsolete?

It’s not working

One report by American advertising company Ace Metrix would certainly suggest so.

The company spent all of 2010 monitoring more than 2,600 adverts, and they discovered that the celebrity endorsed adverts had the same impact as non-celebrity endorsed adverts.

In some cases they performed much worse.

This was particularly prevalent in adverts endorsed by sports celebrities who performed the worst out of all celebrity endorsements.

Out of the whole campaign the two celebs that had the lowest score in the test were professional cyclist Lance Armstrong with minus 28 percent and professional golfer Tiger Woods with minus 30 per cent. The sports star who had the biggest impact was American footballer Peyton Manning who is a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, and he only boosted the value of the campaign by a measly 1.5 per cent. (The full report can be found on the Ace Metrix website).

In an article for the Daily Telegraph Peter Daboll, head of  Ace Metrix, was quoted saying: “Today’s consumers are far more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network”. He went on to state that “They don’t want to have products pushed at them, even by a celebrity.”

So what does this mean for sports stars and their agents? Well one reason behind these findings could be the decline in celebrity status, especially amongst sportsmen.

It used to be the case that the public could only judge a sports person by his or her performance in their chosen sport. Now we know every facet of their lives and when a sports star does make a mistake or do something immoral you can be sure that it gets mass coverage.

So it is of no surprise that Tiger Woods was bottom of the poll, after his catastrophic fall from grace. Woods is still struggling to regain his reputation and his form. Since it came out that he was a serial philanderer Woods has dropped two rankings to third in the world and has put in some truly mediocre performances, so the effect that he will have on a campaign is never going to be what it once was.

Reputation risks

It is because of the constant flow of scandals coming from the sporting world that advertising and PR agencies have to be careful how much they build a brand around a sports star.

Another consequence of the report is that the application of celebrity endorsement needs to be reconsidered. Whereas before it was enough for a celebrity to come on screen and endorse a product, now this has a minimal impact on the public; so a more subtle approach needs to be taken.

One example of this is the campaign for Power Balance Bands. Rather than produce a set of garish flashy adverts that had athletes talking about how effective the bands are, they just asked David Beckham, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to wear the bands in front of the cameras. Word soon spread and eventually other opinion leaders started to test the bands and soon they had worked their way into the mainstream, now they have sold around 2.9 million units around the world.

This opinion is also shared by Tim Crow, who heads up sports marketing group Synergy. In the same article he commented “rather than sticking a sportsman in a studio where they eat money, look uncomfortable and irritate a high proportion of viewers – you need to get them out into the action”.

The rise of social media

Another way in which celebrity endorsements can develop is through social media.  As Peter Daboll stated, people are far more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network; this means that the advantages of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are even more important.

I for one follow a large number of sportsmen and woman on Twitter and when they tweet about a new product they have tried and liked I immediately check out the product, this process has a far bigger impact on me than a traditional advertisement.

Viral adverts are nothing new, but they are a great way of sports people endorsing a product without seeming obvious. One great example of this is Nike’s’ “Write the Future campaign”. This was Nike’s campaign for the 2010 Football world cup. It was launched a month before the start of the tournament and got 7.8 million hits in its first week and it outperformed Adidas, the official sponsor of the World Cup.

These videos show our favourite competitors actually performing; the product that is being promoted feels organic to the video and allows the viewer to witness the effects of whatever is they want to sell. It is clear that internet-based videos have a future in sports branding and if you haven’t seen the video you should watch it after reading this article.

Super Bowl, still super expensive

We are approaching an event which is one of the most eagerly anticipated and watched climax of any tournament, The Super Bowl. This will be broadcast all over the world and watched by over 90 million Americans. On average it costs advertisers 3 million dollars for a thirty second slot on the telecast.

Tom McGovern

With advertisers spending huge amounts of money for viewing figures like that it is obvious that sport still has an integral role in promoting and advertising. With such a big event it is imperative that these campaigns make the maximum impact. That is why it’s crucial PR, marketing and advertising companies start embracing other platforms for endorsing products and start engaging with their target audience.

For me, sport is the most inspiring form of entertainment. It transcends race, gender, class and political barriers and there is something about witnessing a team or individual rise above mediocrity and achieving something greater than themselves. This appeal is universal.

The quest for a sporting victory is itself an allegory for life and as long as people still aspire to become better and look up to sportsmen there will be a place for sports endorsement. However it is the application of the message and the medium which will dictate how successful a campaign will be. The future of sports endorsement rests on the shoulders of the agents and advertisers rather than the sportsmen themselves.


  1. Great article with a well argued opinion.

  2. Really good article and an interesting read.

  3. This is an interesting article and I particular found the part about celebrity endorsements are no longer important when buying a brand.

    This is particularly interesting as the other day I read an article about Beyonce spotted with fairer skin and shorter than when featured in a new advert,

    People understand that it is not just about appearance any more and celebrity idols are less of an interest. Sport however still has growing fan base for young people to look up and especially now with the healthy eating and lifestyle campaigns.

    I myself look to Badminton players as my inspiration when buying a new racket or trainers and people may watch David Beckham in the Adidas adverts before they buy Nike.

    Sporting celebrities, I think, still remain influential when buying sporting products or associating with a sport but with everyday items and clothes the most influential people are the people around you.

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