VOLUME 20 #3

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Female gymnast's legs on balance beam, headline, Ads often misstep

RESEARCH | Your best chance to see a female athlete endorsing a product this year is long gone. The televised commercial breaks during the London Olympic Games may have been littered with female swimmers, runners and gymnasts, but don’t expect to see them much again until the next Olympics.

American companies rarely employ female athletes as spokespeople and when they do, according to two UD professors, they most often do it poorly.

An article in the Journal of Brand Strategy by John Antil and Matthew Robinson suggests advertisers’ tactics are creating a cycle of failure for female athlete endorsers. Antil and Robinson, both faculty members in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, co-authored the article with Rick Burton, who is David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University.

Sex appeal backfires

“The way female athletes are being used as endorsers negatively impacts their effectiveness and reduces wider opportunities for other female athletes,” Antil says.

He points to advertisers’ focus on youth and sex appeal, rather than other defining characteristics, including athletic ability. The researchers conducted nine focus groups on the topic, asking participants to react to ads and discuss their perceptions. Ads that focused on athletes’ attractiveness often elicited negative responses from female participants.

For example, the 2009 “Got Milk?” ad featuring swimmer Dara Torres in a skimpy bathing suit did not impress the focus groups.

“Respondents suggested this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family,” the authors say in the article. “Featuring Dara Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might be more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness at age 40.”

Research shows that women now determine or influence 85 percent of all brand purchases. Likability and similarity play key roles in the effectiveness of a celebrity endorsement, but marketers seem to be ignoring both when it comes to female athletes, the researchers say.

They found when the endorser was much younger than the targeted consumer, the large difference in age made it difficult for female consumers to relate to the athlete. Consequently, the credibility of the young endorser and the product promoted suffered.

When sex appeal was highlighted, consumers responded negatively, especially when comparing themselves to the spokesperson. The study’s authors say highlighting the similarities between the endorser and the targeted consumer could be a more effective strategy.

The ‘Who are you?’ factor

Since the introduction of Title IX, the number of female athletes has skyrocketed, with women’s participation in high school sports increasing 904 percent. This year, for the first time, the number of women competing on the American Olympic team surpassed the number of men, and pre-Olympics publicity focused heavily on female athletes.

Yet, the study’s authors wrote that in developing a list of well-known female athletes, “The selection of female athletes to include was far more difficult to generate than anticipated.”

Familiarity, along with likability and similarity, is a hallmark of an effective spokesperson, Antil says, adding that this lack of familiarity hinders female athletes’ work in the advertising world. And, though the odds may be against it, the researchers say that a woman athlete showing performance, personality and an interesting personal profile could become a new endorsement powerhouse.

Article by Andrea Boyle Tippett, AS02

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