Villing & Company

No Trump: Why Sports Celebrity Endorsers Seldom Make Sense

Like many of you and millions of other Americans, I am an unabashed sports nut. But as a marketer, I often shake my head about the use of sports celebrity advertising endorsements. "What were they thinking?" is my frequent reaction when I see an irrelevant new pitch from a celebrity or quasi-celebrity. Finally, someone has done a study to debunk the myth that celebrity endorsements have some special power to deliver marketing messages more effectively than non-celebrity ads. And, in fact, research conducted by Ad Age shows that "with rare exception, celebrity endorsements were largely ineffective and failed to yield the benefits popular wisdom promises."

The Ad Age study called out the five least effective endorsers from the sports world, in order, as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Kenny Mayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Donald Trump. (Now just how the Donald qualifies as a sports celebrity much less a credible spokesperson is beyond me, but I guess that’s a discussion left for another day.)

I have always believed celebrity endorsements were only as effective as the chosen sports star was (a) relevant to the product, (b) had credibility and (c) was inherently likeable. This plays out in the research. Troy Polamalu scores very highly in his Head & Shoulders commercials. For those of you who may not know Polamalu, he is a star defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers highly recognizable by his amazing bushy mane. His pitch for a shampoo is relevant and the scripts are smartly written to capitalize on that relevance.

Peyton Manning, the affable star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, showed mixed results in the study. He is as skilled at delivering a comic line as he is at delivering a perfectly placed touchdown pass. While some of his endorsements are effective, others fail to move the consumer.

Then there are the aforementioned effectiveness "losers." All too often, high visibility sports stars like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are hired simply because they are known universally for their extraordinary accomplishments at their profession without regard to relevance. For example, what does Lance Armstrong really know about Radio Shack? Or makes Dale Earnhardt Jr. an expert on mayonnaise?

Many years ago, I worked at another advertising agency and the decision was made between our account executive and our client that we should hire a certain Formula One racecar driver. At the time, I expressed my reservations about the relevance of the selection but was over-ruled. Especially troubling was the fact this particular celebrity demanded a three-year contract and a level of compensation that seemed out of line with the budget of the client. Long story short, the celebrity was used heavily (but ineffectively) the first year, minimally the second year and was virtually ignored in the third and final year of the contract.

Relevance and credibility have always been critical issues in the use of celebrities. Now there are additional contemporary factors. Today’s consumer is more sophisticated when it comes to discerning marketing messages. Part of this is due to more knowledge about the skeletons lurking in celebrity closets. More of it is due to the power of social networking. Consumers are much more influenced by the opinions of their peers with direct and credible experience about a product or service than they are by a celebrity who is being highly compensated to speak about a product with which he or she may have limited credible experience.

Filed Under: advertising

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