Sales & Marketing

The best and worst marketing stunts by the 6 most influential athletes

7 min read

22 July 2015

Researchers at the London School of Marketing (LSM) have revealed the top sporting superstars with the most influence when it comes to marketing. We took a look at some of their best stunts – as well as the mistakes they made along the way.

According to Jacques de Cock, a faculty member at LSM, there are four key reasons why brands want to be associated with sports stars. The first explains why the list is almost exclusively male; it enables marketers to advertise to the traditionally hard to reach 16-30 year old male bracket. 

“Sports stars are also brilliant vessels for increasing brand awareness purely down to the sheer volume of people who watch sport,” he said. “Not only does it validate product features, it boosts a brand’s equity as well.”

He added that the values attributed to athletes – honesty, hard work, dedication, skill, etc – could bolster brands not naturally associated with such values.

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that things don’t always go to plan – and athletes are no exception. In order of the LSM’s list, we found out what their marketing highs have been, and where they went wrong.

1) Roger Federer 

Roger Federer has been known to make sure he doesn’t step on anyone’s toes. There is, however, one marketing stunt that wasn’t well received.

In February 2015, he made a public apology to cricket fans who had been annoyed by his #BleedBlue Facebook marketing stunt during India’s World Cup. It came on the day that India clashed against Pakistan. Federer’s display of loyalty was to his sponsor, Nike, rather than any affinity with the Indian cricket team, but his comment – “Dressing up for a gentleman’s game today #BleedBlue” – received quite a hostile reaction. It forced him to admit that it had been a PR stunt.

Arguably one of his best advertisements, for Gilette, featured him doing an impressive trickshot. Picture a scene reminiscent of William Tell shooting an apple from someone’s head, and you’ll get the gist of it. Needless to say, it went on to acclaim viral success.

Impressively, he also featured nine times in Marketing’s 20 most shared tennis ads of all time.

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2) Tiger Woods

According to “People”, Tiger Woods’ former wife Elin said there was one particular advert she was disgusted by. In the commercial, for Nike, he was lectured by the voice of his dead father. Woods, who merely stares at the camera for its entirety, says nothing. As such, it has constantly earned itself a spot among the worst advertising fiascos of all time – an incredible feat given that the video only lasted for 30 seconds. 

This was followed by Nike’s controversial web ad proclaiming that “winning takes care of everything”. It sparked outrage on social media among critics who said it was offensive given his cheating scandal.

Since then Woods has gained favour once more, and made history in his endeavour to promote the Dubai Desert Classic in 2014. The tournament managers managed to convince Woods to play in the event, whereby he practiced his tee shots from the helipad of the Burj Al Arab – the world’s tallest free-standing hotel. Of course, the result was spectacular.

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3) Phil Mickelson

Mickelson has had his fair share of bad stunts. A photoshoot at the 2013 WGC-HSBC Championship saw him pose with a Chinese warrior, dressed in a matching ensemble

Topping that, however, was when he was one of the star attractions at the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in the United Arab Emirates. What ensued can only be compared to some sort of riverdance attempt with golf clubs. You need to see it to believe it…

Apart from helping KPMG focus on women breaking glass ceilings, and retelling his own experiences of having arthritis, Mickelson has mostly been involved with humorous ads. This was particularly so when it came to his partnership with the Crowne Plaza.

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4) Lebron James

Many have started to dub Lebron James as the king of PR. Despite that fact, the worst PR stunt he’s ever done, according to fans, was leave the Cleveland team to play for the Miami Heat. As for commercials, we’re not quite sure what Nike was aiming for when they made this one:

Since then James has “redeemed” himself among fans by going back home to the Cavaliers. James’ decision was a huge deal for both the NBA and the city of Cleveland. Beats made this clear with an ad featuring James driving through the streets of Akron, where he grew up. It includes scenes of him as a kid and shots of the dingy apartments and empty fridges. It’s some pretty powerful stuff!

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5) Kevin Durant

One of the oddest commercials out there has to be when a boy in a treehouse asks his mother if Kevin Durant can join his “Sprint” family plan. Not only is Durant as tall as the tree, with his face almost the size of the window frame, he proceeds to tell the kid he’s a figment of his imagination and takes off rocket-style. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

It seems that Durant has quite the penchant for odd adverts as the one believed to be the best, is arguably just as strange! The Twittersphere was filled with laughing smilies and quotes from the commercial.

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6) Rory McIlroy

Let’s face it, the Santander advert featuring Jenson Button, Jessica Enis and McIlroy randomly showing up in people’s homes, isn’t known for its quality acting – specifically that of McIlroy. They each sneak up on unsuspecting characters and tell them about the bank’s new products. It wasn’t that well received either. At least it beats the riverdance session on the previous page… 

The advert with arguably the most buzz has been the depiction of McIlroy’s childhood watching his hero, Tiger Woods, dominated the world of golf. It then progresses through his childhood, where he is seen chipping golf balls into a washing machine, and learning his trade on driving ranges and putting greens. It concludes with McIlroy turning professional, and eventually teeing off next to Woods on the pro tour.