Game Changing? Drug-Using Pro Athlete Continues As Product Spokesman

Most people in this country have probably never heard of Tom Boonen.

Yet he is breaking new ground as an athlete and a TV spokesman -- something sports personalities who front consumer products should take notice of.  Especially every athlete who has had a little too much to drink, has been caught speeding, or had one illicit drug floating around his system.

Boonen is a Belgian professional road champion cyclist on the Pro Tour team called Quick Step. He has won big-time competitions like the sprinters' green jersey in the Tour de France, the classic Paris-Roubaix (twice), Tour of Flanders (twice), and the World Championships. In Europe, Boonen is a superstar athlete.

Recently he tested positive for cocaine -- which in most of the cycling world is considered with a shrug of the shoulders because it isn't a performance-enhancing drug like EPO and artificial testosterone.  It's just an illegal recreational drug.

Boonen appears in TV commercials running in this country for Specialized bikes, a brand that is also a sponsor of Boonen's team. In the niche market of road bicycles and road bike races, these commercials don't have a wide-ranging media plan.

Specialized ads have been running on Versus, the sports cable network that airs bike racing events including the Tour de France. But here's the kicker. Those commercials have continued to run after news of Boonen's cocaine use. The commercials have also been running on digital TV outlets, like Jump TV's destination.

This breaks new ground. Big U.S. marketers would almost always pull advertising when troubling news of a sports celebrity spokesman hits -- especially those who are big-name players in iconic sports.

TV marketers say they typically never take real sides in these issues --  at least initially. Instead, they let the sports authorities and legal system do the work. Sports-related advertisers might "suspend" a campaign waiting for system to work its way through issues.

In contacting Specialized, a spokesman explained his company's decision to keep the ads on the air. He reiterated the Quick Step team's explanation that Boonen had had an "out of competition" test, that the abuse wasn't about helping his performance, and that commercial really focuses on the "bike." The spokesman also said the media buy on Versus, for example, was already in place.

In some ways the company should be lauded for keeping its commercial running with its less-than-perfect spokesman. Sometimes there are mistakes not only with the athlete but with the tests involved. Life is complicated. Show it, deal with it, and sell product.

For its part, Versus doesn't turn away from the issue either. It becomes one of the first sports networks to address the drugs and sports issues in an upfront way with its "Take Back the Tour" on-air promo campaign for the Tour de France.

Marketing executives might snicker that Specialized is a small company and doesn't want to waste media dollars and valuable marketing time in a key time of year. Others might say Specialized should do what a bigger marketer might --  pull the spots. If not, Boonen's cocaine association could rub off onto the profile of Specialized products.  

Next week, Versus begins coverage of its marquee cycling event, the Tour de France, which, over the last few years, has had to deal with a series of disrupting high-profile drug news and scandals.

The Tour de France organizer, Amaury Sport Organisation, isn't allowing Boonen to compete. Specialized didn't say whether the Boonen ad would continue to run during the big telecast, but did note it would probably show off some new creative.

We'll be watching -- and hopefully not spinning our wheels



Next story loading loading..