To Believe Or Not To Believe (That Is The Question)

The fact that Billy Mays is still on TV pitching such goods as Fix It, Jupiter Jack and Zorbeez by yelling, "THIS IS BILLY MAYS HERE!!!" months after his untimely death speaks volumes (pun intended) about the way consumers view his skills. If Peyton Manning, for example, suddenly passed away, would he (and brother Eli) remain "champion" of Oreo's Double Stuff Racing League, or would we still see Brett Favre waffling while buying a Samsung LED TV at Sears should he meet an early demise?

Athletes have been used as pitchmen dating back to Ty Cobb (who invested in and was a spokesman for Coca-Coca) and Babe Ruth (who endorsed products ranging from cereal and gum to tobacco and shot guns). Tiger Woods could be considered the Babe Ruth of marketing, not for the volume of companies he endorses but because the $90 million-plus he earns from these alliances is Ruthian in stature compared to other athletes.

Fellow golfer Phil Mickelson is second among all athletes in total endorsements at a mere $46 million. Other top-paid athletes (based on estimated endorsement incomes) include LeBron James ($28 million), Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($22 million), Maria Sharapova ($20 million), Kobe Bryant ($15 million), Venus and Serena Williams ($13-$15 million each) and Peyton Manning ($13 million).

The major difference between the traditional union of sports and Madison Avenue and deals of the past five-ten years is that consumers (and the Federal Trade Commission) are much more demanding about the fact that an athlete must actually use the product he/she is promoting.

The current campaign from Burger King addresses this, albeit tongue-in-cheek, by stating outright that driver Tony Stewart eats Whoppers because he really enjoys them and not just because the fast-feeder is one of his NASCAR sponsors. One spot shows him teaching at the Tony Stewart School of Endorsements. "You have to sell stuff you love. People have to trust you. You are what you endorse," Stewart tells such celebrities such as Carrot Top and Erik Estrada. Another spot has Stewart passing a lie detector test, where he is asked, "Do you love the Whopper?" and "Do you love its flame-fresh taste?"

"When used correctly, athletes as spokespeople works," said David Schwab, managing director for First Call, the celebrity and activation division of sports and entertainment marketing firm Octagon in McLean, Va. "They increase brand awareness, differentiate a product and ultimately increase consideration, which in turn, increases sales. That said, consumers are smarter. It's why you see more chefs rather than athletes endorsing food products. Believability," stressed Schwab, "is important."

According to the Davie Brown Index from Davie Brown Entertainment, Los Angeles, which measures a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent based on such factors as awareness, trust and appeal, the top five athletes are Michael Jordan, Woods, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and Shaquille O'Neal.

When Armstrong, who has won seven Tour de France bike races, and Michelob Ultra unveiled a marketing alliance earlier this month, he became the most visible active athlete to come out for an alcoholic beverage. As such, both sides went out of their way to support the authenticity of the partnership.

"Having dominated a sport that requires such a physical commitment, Lance is the perfect athlete to connect with adult beer drinkers who lead active lifestyles," the company said in a statement. "The key word is we tried to be authentic," echoed Armstrong. "You don't want to be in a place where you're putting your name or face or likeness in any old thing that comes along and whispers in your ear."

"Believability matters because people are asking about the athletes who endorse products, 'Would he or she actually wear that, drive it, or use it?'" said John Meindl president/CEO for marketing and product placement firm SportsBrandedMedia, New York. "Today's teens, for example, are more skeptical and believe many athletes will do or say anything for money."

According to Schwab, the use of celebrities and influencers in marketing campaigns is increasing year over year, in many cases pushing athletes out. "The advent of such niche channels as Food Network, Discovery and TLC has increased the number of 'celebrities' in the marketplace."

In addition to reality shows, the increased use of new media outlets also has impacted endorsement deals. "Brands can get and increase buzz online via blogs, Twitter and Facebook" without having to pay high-profile athletes, said Schwab. "[These] celebrities also increase brand recall of products. But be careful: This alone doesn't dictate success. The pairing must be smart and relevant to the consumer."

Which is why there will be no escaping marketing campaigns starring Billy Mays while a core group of athletes remain in demand. "The royalty - Tiger, Lebron, Sharapova - have not felt the pain," said Meindl. "Twenty-five years later, people still want to be like Mike."

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