Pitch Battle: Beware the Sports Metaphor

Businesses love to use glamorous athletes in their TV commercials and print ads. Sometimes this works great (Michael Jordan, George Foreman); sometimes not so great (Kobe Bryant).

January 27 2012 by Joe Queenan


Pitch Battle

Businesses love to use glamorous athletes in their TV commercials and print ads. Sometimes this works great (Michael Jordan, George Foreman); sometimes not so great (Kobe Bryant). For a few years, a high-profile razor blade company was using the potent trio of tennis star Roger Federer, soccer star Thierry Henry and golf legend Tiger Woods to promote its products. The message in these glitzy promos was simple: Successful individuals never rest on their laurels; you cannot afford to lose your edge. Especially if you’re in the razor business.

“Yesterday is history,” declared Federer, strolling into view at the beginning of the TV spot. “Just a nice memory.”

“I never think about yesterday,” added an equally confident Henry.

“The only thing that matters is today,” said Woods.

As it turns out, yesterday is not always such a nice memory. We all know what happened to links lothario Tiger Woods, whose status as a beloved pitchman is now kaput, but his colleagues have also tumbled from their pinnacles. Henry disgraced himself in 2009 when he used his hand to set up the winning goal in a match the French national team played against the Irish, a defeat that cost the Irish a chance to compete in the World Cup for the first time. And Federer, no longer capable of beating his arch-rival Rafael Nadal, is now having trouble beating the new world No. 1, Novak Djokovic.

No longer the most gracious loser, Federer has now slipped to No. 4 in the world rankings, behind uberchoker Andy Murray, who only wins tournaments that don’t matter—usually with his mother in attendance. That’s why you haven’t seen those Federer-Henry-Woods television commercials for some time. But somebody somewhere should exhume them for a marketing course to drive home the message: When you hitch your product’s image to a star, you must be aware that the star’s luster can fade overnight. For more on this subject, check out LeBron James’ recent marketing triumphs. Or O.J. Simpson’s.

Attempts to use sports and commerce as perfect analogies often run into huge obstacles. Except for the desire to prevail over the opposition, the two have very little in common. When Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was sidelined with a career-threatening neck

Attempts to use sports and commerce as perfect analogies often run into huge obstacles. Except for the desire to prevail over the opposition, the two have very little in common.

injury last summer, his team immediately went out and lost the first eight games of the new season. These are the guys who were in the Super Bowl just 18 months earlier—which seems to suggest that Manning, already viewed as one of the greatest players ever and a very effective corporate pitchman, may have been even better than anyone suspected.

But it also suggests that the Colts have a different business model than, say, Starbucks or McDonald’s. Corporations often depend on the health and talents of a charismatic leader; but for a company to go as completely into the tank as the Colts did, it would have to first lose its CEO and then have him or her replaced by someone so inept, so inexperienced, and so lacking in inspirational qualities that the company literally couldn’t get anyone to buy its products anymore. There is no corporation in the United States that fits this image. There is no corporation that has gone from the top to the bottom, from sheer brilliance to abject failure, as quickly as the Indianapolis Colts.

Well, maybe Research in Motion. Or Netflix. There is a company, of course, that just lost its brilliant, charismatic, inspirational leader: Apple. Yet, thus far, Steve Jobs’ death has not caused the company he cofounded to plummet into the abyss, Coltsstyle. Nor is there any reason to believe it will. Companies tend to have a plausible line of succession in place that football teams do not.

If the top gun goes down, it doesn’t mean that the entire company is going to go down with him. This is the principal difference between professional quarterbacks and CEOs. Well, that and the ability to throw a ball 60 yards in the air while being menaced by four men weighing 1,200 pounds between them. So, the next time you see an ad proclaiming “Joe Torre means business,” try to imagine a spot declaring “Bill Gates means sports.” That’s about how much these two worlds have to do with one another.