A “commercial” success?

January 21, 2014 · 0 comments

Hey, don’t blame me. I probably would have forgotten about these if it wasn’t a segment on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

Two excellent pieces on Alex Rodriguez in The New York Times over the past few days. One was this from William C. Rhoden, who asks the question, “When will baseball, which only belatedly acknowledged its role in creating the steroid era, take its medicine?” This is a position I’ve maintained, while many others are happy to throw the beleaguered ballplayer under the bus.

The other comes from the redoubtable Richard Sandomir and bears reproduction in length for the links I was able to provide on several of the items mentioned.

In the 1990s, Alex Rodriguez starred in a commercial for Nike that looked like yet another creative campaign by the sports apparel giant. It was amusing and effective and reflected positively on Rodriguez.

In the ad, he fed a baseball, trading cards, sod, Cracker Jack, peanuts, a sneaker and a bat into a juicer to create a fantasy brew.

At the time, he was still the young, powerful, talented shortstop for the Seattle Mariners. Spinning the collection of baseball paraphernalia seemed like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of a Jack LaLanne juicer demonstration. It ended with the question: “What are you getting ready for?”

What looked like creativity then looks oddly prophetic in view of what has happened to him since. In 2009, he admitted that he had juiced himself while with the Texas Rangers.

And this month, an arbitrator ruled that evidence linking Rodriguez to the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic showed that he had used illicit drugs over the last few years, and decided that he must be suspended for the 2014 season and not play in the postseason. Rodriguez is appealing the decision in federal court.

There was a time, beginning with his years in Seattle, when Rodriguez was an easy-to-market athlete, regionally and nationally. No one was ready for his reputation to fall into tatters.

“He was a superstar player, very attractive, with an engaging personality who was destined for greatness,” said Bob Williams, the chief executive of Burns Entertainment, which matches celebrities with brands. “There was so much talk that he would do damage to the record books. Those attributes are appealing to most advertisers and helped him as he moved from Seattle to Texas and New York.”

His advertising résumé includes a Radio Shack commercial with Daisy Fuentes and an Amtrak commercial with Nomar Garciaparra.

He had deals with Pepsi, Eagle Hardware (which was acquired by Lowe’s), Armani and Topps, Williams said. He had a milk mustache for the “Got Milk?” campaign. He advertised Armour hot dogs with Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and other players. He ran through Manhattan for Mennen Speed Stick, telling the camera: “New York. Pressure? No sweat.” In 2008, Rodriguez co-starred in a Guitar Hero commercial with Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps and Tony Hawk in which all wore pink button-down shirts, boxers and white socks as they mocked Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.”

Now, it appears, Rodriguez has almost nothing to pitch. He has not lost his endorsements rapidly, as Lance Armstrong did in the aftermath of his admission that he had used banned drugs throughout his run of seven Tour de France victories. Instead, Rodriguez’s deals eventually ended. Certainly, some campaigns simply ran their course. But some companies chose not to renew their ties to him.

Nike, for instance, did not re-enlist with Rodriguez after his deal ended in 2009, but it still occasionally gives him apparel, a spokesman said.

Spokesmen for Rodriguez declined to say what endorsements he still has, if any.

Companies do not want their images hurt by associating themselves with a celebrity who has cheated, as Rodriguez has, or been barred by a sport, as Armstrong has.

Phil de Picciotto, the president and founder of Octagon Inc., a sports marketer, said that endorsements were linked “not only to visibility and performance, but also to authenticity, relatability and likability.” Those qualities are more attributable to other Yankees, like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, he said.

Rodriguez’s appeal to fans and the public, which marketers assess before they put athletes in ads, has been plummeting as measured by Q Scores, the company that conducts surveys that assess celebrity popularity. In 2003, long before he admitted to using steroids, Rodriguez’s Q score was 18, somewhat above average for major leaguers, but well below Ken Griffey Jr.’s 26.

Last September, after Commissioner Bud Selig levied the 211-game suspension that the arbitrator then reduced, Rodriguez’s Q score among sports fans had fallen to a 12. Jeter led all baseball players with a 27.

An even broader measure of how Rodriguez is viewed is the negative Q Score. From 2003 to ’13, Rodriguez’s negative Q soared to a 49 from a 24.

“The average consumer has formed a very negative perception of him,” said Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores. “He could have been an icon.”

In 2011, Rodriguez found himself in an awkward position, one of his fair share during his off-the-field career. He had invested in Zico, a coconut water maker, but then agreed to be an investor and endorser of another coconut water brand, Vita Coco. He cashed out of Zico and became the face of a Vita Coco print ad that was written without sensing a potential connection to baseball’s steroid crisis. “Hydrate Naturally,” it says, below an image of a content-looking Rodriguez in a gray sweater and blue shirt. “From a tree, not a lab.”

Since that ad ran, the company has not used Rodriguez again, a spokesman said, but “he remains a supporter of and investor in the Vita Coco brand.”

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