Academic journal article International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

Exploring the Curious Demand for Athletes with Controversial Images: A Review of Anti-Hero Product Endorsement Advertising

Academic journal article International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

Exploring the Curious Demand for Athletes with Controversial Images: A Review of Anti-Hero Product Endorsement Advertising

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

For the last 30 years, advertising and sponsorship executives have consistently utilised controversial athletes to promote products ranging from beer and soda to footwear, pizza and watches. While the practice of selecting sports heroes for advertising can be traced back more than 90 years, it is only within the last three decades that athletes with negative or non-traditional reputations have emerged as viable product endorsers. Additionally, in an increasingly competitive, saturated and globalised marketplace, controversial athletes who can break through the clutter, regardless of native language, have become prized in some cases for their social honesty, manipulation of mediums/technology and their contemporary appeal. This paper looks at the underpinnings of this marketing development and attempts to prepare practitioners and scholars for the continuance of this trend.

In particular, the authors suggest that while athletes and film stars have frequently been measured by "Q" scores (a research tool quantifying a celebrity's performance and likeability), the modern marketer may need to look beyond the simplicity of a consumer liking an athlete for his or her looks, on-field performance or image, be it momentary or sustained over time. Rather, the practitioner must attempt to determine if the athlete provides targeted segment source credibility for a particular product or service and how long that alignment will work efficiently. In this sense, it may be more important for an athlete to appear "true" to his or her values, regardless of general public criticism or ongoing evaluations by the media.

Importantly, certain demographic segments (e.g. Generation X: those individuals born between 1965 and 1978; and Generation Y: born between 1979 to 1995) cyclically show a particular notion to reject certain values held by the larger society or their elders (parents, teachers, politicians). This trend may allow contemporary athletes who challenge the status quo to appear more relevant to certain targets and to perhaps offer more relevance to specific brands. Future research, however, will need to analyze more comprehensively the relationship between a brand and the athlete potentially selected to endorse that brand. Specifically, researchers and practitioners may be well served to understand more comprehensively how heroes are created and, if not worshipped, revered.

Of note for image-driven product categories, marketing executives will need to better understand the isomorphic values of an increasingly global community and individual consumers they seek to serve.

Where athletes may have once been known for winning performances or the purity of their athletic accomplishments, the modern athlete is now increasingly seen as an entertainer and not restricted to concepts of fair play, selflessness, humility or a team-first orientation. Today, some athletes are thought more legitimate for their arrogance, win-at-all-cost efforts, or their showmanship. Practitioners in a number of marketing categories need to be certain they understand this trend as well as the digital mediums that may de-humanize athletic performance.


The use of popular athletes in advertising has existed in North America for more than 90 years (Brooks, 1998), since baseball players such as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb allowed their names and likeness to be reproduced for the sale of candy and tobacco products. Not surprisingly, fans, consumers and journalists have traditionally recognized athletic prowess in sport and, until the 1960s, athletes were respected for the traditional societal values of hard work, physical discipline, sportsmanship and athletic achievement. Many athletes have appeared to represent a higher physical ideal and their superb individual performances, whether as Olympians or as professionals, have made these champions commercially attractive to marketers for the purpose of endorsing a product or a brand. …

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