ESPN And Jameson Share Blame in Ad Snafu

On Nov. 1, @PD335 tweeted praise for “Unguarded,” the critically acclaimed ESPN documentary about a basketball star whose career was torn apart by substance abuse. But, he wasn’t entirely satisfied, expressing frustration that Irish whiskey Jameson was a sponsor.

“I don’t know why, but that struck a wrong chord,” @PD335 said.

He wasn’t the only one hitting up social media to suggest the Jameson involvement was insensitive. And, questions about ESPN’s decision-making prompted a load of complaints to the Poynter Institute, ESPN’s de facto ombudsman.

So, Poynter’s Jason Fry spoke with ESPN about the matter and the network acknowledged it had made a mistake. In consultation with an aggravated Jameson, the brand’s sponsorship was lifted from subsequent airings of the film.

The incident sheds light on the power of Twitter to impact advertising decisions at such a rapid pace. On this week, Poynter’s Fry wrote that ESPN discovered the barbed commentary the night the film debuted. Jack Shea, a vice president at Jameson’s parent Pernod Ricard, said the company noticed it, too. The following day came the decision to remove Jameson’s sponsorship from repeats of the documentary.



“Unguarded” focuses on Chris Herren, a Massachusetts high school hero who made it to the NBA, but could not overcome alcohol and drug addiction to save his career. It is part of series of ESPN films, where Jameson has a top-line role.

In a statement issued to Poynter, Jameson said it was unaware of the content in the Herren film, which was not appropriate for its brand. The company said if it had been aware of it, it would have halted its sponsorship.

The Poynter commentary pins the blame for the snafu squarely on an internal ESPN error. And ESPN ad sales head Ed Erhardt absorbs the heat in Fry's piece. 

But, Jameson and its media agency Vizeum share culpability. In the sensitive, controversial area of hard-liquor advertising, it is baffling they would fail to conduct a thorough review of content before it debuts when their brand is a prominent sponsor. The film was also not some overnight repeat, but a high-profile ESPN production.

Shea, the Jameson representative, would not comment on that. He spoke delicately about any fault ESPN may bear in the matter, noting Jameson's media partners have copies of its strict advertising guidelines, which state the brand should not be linked to content showing alcohol abuse.

“We take that responsibility very seriously,” he said.

Shea said an error such as the “Unguarded” misstep has not happened before to his knowledge. Pernod Ricard is reviewing its ad procedures with its partners to make sure a similar circumstance doesn’t happen again.

ESPN would not comment on the matter beyond what if offered in the Poynter commentary. Poynter’s Fry wrote that the texture of the Jameson sponsorship played a role in the oversight.

The ESPN documentaries are shown with limited commercial interruptions, so sponsors like Jameson receive mention in a “non-standard format.” Fry wrote ESPN’s standards and practices department mainly focuses on “traditional commercials," which may have played a role. 

“We erred on the side of trying to be innovative in terms of the advertising environment and in trying to provide our fans a limited-interruption environment,” ESPN sales president Ed Erhardt told Poynter. “Unfortunately the film for this one brand wasn’t the right connection. We responded as quickly as we could.”

Erhardt added oversights do occur and they prompt a renewed urgency to make sure the review process is solid and covers all manner of sponsorships.

That might keep the @PD335s quiet. Might.   

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