All the Bang, But No Bucks 12/08/2009 - 4:29 PM
Most of us don’t actually “buy” the notion that paid-to-play celebrity endorsers really love or even use the products they hawk, but that’s not stopping marketing folks from shelling out more than $1 billion a year to their hired shills.
The practice of spokespeople paying mere lip service for payment has gotten so out of control that the Federal Trade Commission last month issued new truth-in-advertising guidelines for celebrity endorsements. Basically, the FTC is sending a message to the likes of Britney Spears that she should be able to prove she really does shop at Kohl’s, and to Lee Majors that he had better be a true believer in the $14.95 hearing aid he touts on those late-night TV infomercials.
Some of us noticed a minor transgression by an A-list endorser Thanksgiving weekend when it turned out the car veteran Buick pitchman Tiger Woods cracked up was a Cadillac SUV, showing that in real life he wouldn’t be caught dead—or injured—in a Buick Enclave.
In fairness to Woods, the Buick deal—which was supposed to extend through 2009—was prematurely ended late last year when the recession put a stranglehold on the car business.
That also happened to be about the time that another athlete, Nikolay Davydenko, was told by Prince Sports that his racquet endorsement contract wouldn’t be renewed for 2009.
The difference was that after he got the boot, Davydenko retained his loyalty to the Prince Ozone Pro Tour
by continuing to sing the praises of his magic racquet. He has repeatedly credited the Ozone as a major reason for his Top-5 finishes from 2005-08, the years of his Prince contract. Davydenko is particularly fond of the racquet’s O-Technology—big holes (instead of traditional grommets) around the frame which reduce wind resistance and hence increase racquet-head speed, according to the TENNIS.com review
While Woods was plowing his Caddy through a neighbor’s tree, the Russian was plowing through the field at the Barclay ATP Finals in London. The little guy’s boffo run—he defeated all of this year’s Grand Slam event champions—ended when he played the biblical David to 6-foot-5 Juan Martin del Potro’s Goliath in the finale, thumping the Tandil tree topper in straight sets.
Afterward, the media asked the still sponsorless and Ozone-toting Nikolay if he thought his London success would finally get him a racquet deal, any deal with any brand. He said sure, that would be easy, but he can’t give up his magic racquet. As he put it in the post-match news conference: “Doesn't matter, [about] other racquets… for me it's important how I play first, not about money, how much another company pay for me. Then I [risk] losing everything, out of Top 10.”
Which prompted the obvious follow-up question: “How come Prince does not sponsor you any more?” He answered, “Prince give everything to [Prince endorser Maria] Sharapova, and no money anymore.”
The interview transcript noted that he was smiling when he said that. He was exaggerating, of course. Sharapova is probably Prince’s highest-paid endorser, but there are 104 other ATP and WTA pros who have “Team Prince”
endorsement deals these days, and the highest ranked of its 64 male pros is No. 13 Gael Monfils, who has never even made the cut for the eight-player ATP year-end finale.
But all racquet companies guard their money relationships with players closely, so when I asked Prince what the deal (or no deal) was, I got a predictable response in the form of a statement, part of which read:
“We don’t discuss our player endorsement discussions, and any speculation regarding a more formal endorsement with Davydenko is just that.” It was followed by the equally predictable, “Yes, we are delighted that Nikolay has continued to find success with Prince racquets and O-Technology, and wish him continued success.”
My best guess is Prince dumped Davydenko for the same corporate belt-tightening reason Buick released Tiger Woods, and I suspect all the tennis brands these recessionary days might be reevaluating their pro-player spending as well.
A Prince spokesman did note that the company’s online traffic doubled on the Monday after the London event from the same day the week prior, but the brand couldn’t tell how much of the spike could be attributed to Davydenko’s performance, or to the London doubles win by Team Prince’s Bryan brothers that weekend, or to the overall holiday gift rush.
But for Prince the Davydenko performance must have been a marketer’s dream—it got the bang for no bucks. And more importantly, it came from the only kind of sincere celebrity endorser there is—the so-rare unpaid pitchman, and it kind of makes you wonder if you should have what he’s having.
I won’t be test-driving a Buick this week, but I’m pretty sure I know what racquet I’ll be playtesting.