Ad Man: What would you do if Lance Armstrong was your brand spokesperson?

Steve Henry, the advertising legend behind “You’ve been Tango’d” and other iconic ads, weighs in on the celebrity risk factor

So you give a guy $50m to be the visible embodiment of your brand and then the brave athletic handsome Dr Jekyll, turns into saliva-dribbling Mr Hyde with more drugs in his body than Peter Doherty with a loan from QuickQuid.

And, worse, he comes across as some sort of psychopath on the cycle path. I once had a client who forbade celebrity endorsements because of the risks involved. But he was the sort of person who thinks extra-strong mints are too risky, and we didn’t work together for long.

Celebrity endorsement is the laziest form of advertising, but usually it sort of, by and large, seems to work a little bit. (Which is about as good as most advertising gets).

I know that when I’m confronted by a selection of haemorrhoid creams, the knowledge that George Clooney favours Anusol will always tip the scales for me. Or hang on - was it Germoloids he preferred?

Dammit, I’ve forgotten now.Anyway. Doesn’t matter. Germoloids are doing 3 for 2.

But irreversible disasters happen rarely (with celebrities I mean, not haemorrhoid cream) and usually the public is pretty forgiving. So celebrity endorsements are a well-trodden route and, as with all such paths, they need to be avoided in search of fresher thinking.

But fresh thinking means understanding risk.

I think it would be worth the ad industry’s while to look at how the financial world weighs up risk. To them, it’s a number, a quantifiable thing. Not, by itself, a bad thing. To most people in marketing it’s - aaaargh, teeth clenched, sit bolt upright in the middle of the night help me Mummy terror.

Great agencies - of which, at any point in time, there are normally about 2 in the whole world - want to get their clients to push into areas of risk.

So it’s a shame that the most consistently creative agency over the last thirty years, Wieden + Kennedy, is currently having to deal with this very rare fallout from a risk going wrong - from the usually safe avenue of celebrity endorsement.

Lance “don’t just pump up the tyres” Armstrong.

For a long while, Nike’s slogan was “Just Do It”, and the brand sometimes took that attitude of “win at all costs” a bit too seriously. For instance, here - with a bullying liar and cheat, who has single-handedly destroyed how a whole sport is seen, through many years of self-obsessed ambition, and who’s attempted to destroy various people’s careers and lives ruthlessly, almost for fun along the way.

Let’s be honest - psychopaths are a pain in the arse. Whether they’re running a FTSE Top 100 company or butchering their lover in Camden after a row about who did the washing up.

As a rule, I try to avoid them whenever possible. And working with a psychopath is especially fraught if your motto is ‘“Just Do It”.

This is a God-given opportunity for Adidas to jump in and make some statement about ethics, but my guess is that they’ll be too scared to do that, because they play a pretty similar marketing game to Nike, and they’ll be worried that some of their stars are equally screwed-up.

Looking at what’s coming to light about sport in Australia, Lance Armstrong could just be the tip of a can of worms that’s bigger than those Toblerones you see in Duty Free.

Do I blame the agency or the brand for the Lance Armstrong screw-up? I don’t want to blame either because both of them have done spectacularly brilliant work over the years, and so few agencies or clients take risks - we can’t afford to censure the few brave souls that do. 

Although I do wonder if - while they were celebrating all forms of exercise - Nike might have exercised some better judgement in this case? However, It’s a shame to talk about things going wrong, because advertising needs to take more risks and most ad agencies are more risk-averse than a barefoot pregnant woman trying to cross the Serengeti plain during the annual migration of the spiky-backed black mamba scorpion.

Everyone’s trying to find what’s “wrong” with an idea, because their fear of creativity is that something catastrophic will go wrong. Which, generally (and Lance Armstrong notwithstanding) it doesn’t.

So, how do you deal with the man who put the spoke into spokesperson? Even that problem is solvable, and I’ve got the answer if anybody’s interested.

Put him on a mission against cancer. Put that ruthless and generally charmless determination to good use. It’s the most honourable thing he’s done, fighting cancer, and I’d build on that.

All brands need to figure out how to fight battles on behalf of their customers. That’s the real issue about marketing - not which Andy Warhol 15 minute wonder you can afford to have x% of linked speciously to your brand.

Unilever are building their entire marketing around this, and Nike’s been doing brilliantly for years, championing sport against the pervasive temptations of sedentary computer games and supermarkets putting sugar and saturated fat into everything except their till receipts. 

Now they could help to tackle the biggest health problem of all. Even though I dislike Lance Armstrong enormously, I hope he does that - because he could actually make a difference.

Update: On Friday February 15th, Nike requested that an ad featuring Oscar Pistorius with the headline “I am the bullet in the chamber” be removed after the Paralympic sprinter was accused of shooting his girlfriend 4 times with a 9mm pistol.

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