Re:cycling. Should Lance Armstrong hand his sponsorship money back?

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by Magnus Shaw.


In this age of fitness fanaticism and dire public transport, it's not unusual to see people arriving at the office on a bicycle. How they find the stamina, I can’t begin to guess, but I don’t think they take the Lance Armstrong approach.

Lance Armstrong, eh? What a card. One of those human beings always destined to be a celebrity, fulfilling that destiny spectacularly. On watching those Oprah interviews, my abiding impression was of a man who really didn’t care that he had exchanged fame for infamy, merely satisfied that his profile was even more elevated, the reasons be damned. At best his apologies were mealy-mouthed and at worst, he seemed to be suggesting he had somehow been treated unfairly and was anticipating a return to sport. A man in love with himself is something to behold.

But if Lance aint so worried about Lance, the same cannot be said of his sponsors.

The American government has added its name to a lawsuit against the cyclist. The action states that Lance effectively defrauded the US Postal Service out of millions of dollars in sponsorship money when he competed and won by using performance-enhancing drugs. It goes on to allege that Armstrong and others, broke their sponsorship agreements and that Johan Bruyneel, the team’s manager, facilitated the drug use. In short, they want their money back.

Fair enough, you might think. But doesn’t this reveal something about the complacent nature of sports sponsorship and celebrity endorsement? Professional cycling is a sport with a notorious doping problem – before Armstrong, many of its participants had fallen foul of the testers. What made the US Postal Service think this superhuman man was achieving victory through muscle and willpower alone? Sure, he tested clean throughout his career, but surely that would at least raise the suspicion of  sophisticated masking. Unless you didn’t care. Unless you were so pleased to be associated with an athlete who had, not only beaten all his competitors, but cancer too. And you didn’t really want to think about how he was doing it. The reason Armstrong’s sponsors are so riled, is that he was grassed up and confessed – that the cat came out of the bag.

Getting a famous figure involved in your brand is an expensive business. It’s also very risky. Pick the right idol and the rewards can be great, but pick one with foibles and weaknesses and you’re storing up trouble. And that’s the problem. Unlike a logo or a strapline, a human being is guaranteed to have frailties. That’s what makes them human. Of course, not all sports stars are going to crash and burn like Armstrong, but they are going to have personal lives, arguments and divorces. At the very least, they are going to lose.

When engaging in a celebrity endorsement deal, the best a brand can hope for is some reflected glory during the period that celebrity is glorious. Of course, any sponsor is free to tear up the contract if things go awry (or fail to renew it when the sheen comes off the glossy career) – however, to be aghast when a regular human lets you down is beyond naive.

Attitudes vary wildly here. You'll recall an incident in 2005 which exposed Kate Moss, with the help of the tabloid press, as a drug user. Overnight her modelling and endorsement contracts were cancelled, followed by much huffing and puffing from her sponsors expressing their 'outrage'. Within a few months, almost all her work returned - some at an increased rate. It seems drugs in the fashion and beauty industries are actually more or less accepted by sponsors.

To be honest, I think the US Post Office had what they paid for. While Armstrong was winning, he was a beloved hero. So the sponsor received the association they so evidently craved. Like the public, the sponsor was convinced their man was the real thing – genuinely and naturally fast. Presumably, therefore, their brand enjoyed the boost they hoped and planned for. Just because the whole affair transpired to be a charade at a later date, doesn’t alter the benefits they enjoyed at the time.  It’s not as if they are sponsoring him now – in his ‘disgrace’ and ‘shame’ so they can breathe easy. They’ve washed their hands of him now, so it would seem unlikely any American citizen would think their letters and parcels are somehow adversely affected by the scandal.

Ultimately the US Post Office paid Lance Armstrong millions of dollars to deliver something (pun intended), which he did. It just happens he used nefarious means to do it. Nevertheless, we can be certain some hefty American lawyers will soon be relishing a winning feeling beyond anything even Lance experienced.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant

Visit Magnus's Website


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