It Pays to Be Personal: Baseball and Product Endorsements

By Newman, Roberta | Nine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

It Pays to Be Personal: Baseball and Product Endorsements


Newman, Roberta, Nine


In the 1920s Printer's Ink, the august advertising journal, printed this ditty:

   It pays to be personal now;
   It brings in the shekels--and how!
   If you want to sell drugs,
   Or Baluchistan rugs,
   Or revolvers to thugs,
   Or a spray to kill bugs--
   You've got to be personal now. (1)

Around the same time that Printer's Ink published this poem, Stanley Resor of the J. Walter Thompson agency claimed that personal testimonials by the notable, touting the benefits of a given product, succeed because we, as consumers, get caught up in the "spirit of emulation," the desire to imitate "those who we deem superior in taste or knowledge or experience." (2) Well represented among those we deem superior are professional baseball players. Indeed, for over a century, hundreds of baseball's luminaries, baseball's celebrities, have gotten personal, lending their names and images to advertisements for products ranging from the expected--breakfast cereals, hot dogs, and soft drinks, for example--to the unexpected, such as kitty litter, on-line banking, and prescription drugs.

Irving Rein, Philip Kotler, and Martin Stoller, in High Visibility, pitched by its publishers as "the bible, the Das Kapital, the Origin of Species of the infant science of celebritology," write that celebrity helps to meet the crucial public need for icons, role models, and reference persons. "Celebrities provide stories, entertainment, diversions, uplifts, moral instruction. Through them we enjoy vicarious emotions and experiences rarely found in our daily lives." (3) It is these vicarious emotions and experiences that advertisers bank on when they select celebrities to pitch their products. Often it is primarily the wealth or good looks of a celebrity that we wish to emulate, his or her purchasing power or ability to attract the opposite sex that we wish to enjoy. But athletes are different. Certainly, we look to them in their personal lives to provide us with stories, entertainment, diversion, and uplift, if not moral instruction, and we are also swept up by their wealth and occasional good looks. Yet, by the very nature of what they do, by the sheer physicality of the acts they perform, baseball players and other athletes provide heightened physical experience, their successes and failures provide heightened emotions, at an entirely different level than those provided by the other celebrities through whom we may live vicariously. Athletes must be almost supernatural in their physical abilities--not just talented and charismatic, rich and good-looking--to have earned their places in the celebrity pantheon.

Celebrity ballplayers may provide an even greater service to those who wish to emulate them. One need only listen to a few minutes of any local sports/talk radio station to see that a certain portion of the population, part of the demographic to whom endorsements and testimonials by celebrity athletes appeal, regards its heroes with something approaching religious fervor. In fact, the very term celebrity comes from the Latin celebratus, the condition of being honored, from which also comes the term celebrant, or priest. (4) The celebrity, however, is not the celebrant, or the priest, but the celebrated, the object of belief, itself. Baseball's faithful, the sports/talk callers, are the celebrants.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the endorsement industry is rooted in American evangelical culture, recalling testimonials made by the saved, attesting to the power of God to deliver the soul from suffering. Indeed, the earliest patent medicine endorsers, literally snake-oil salesmen, were itinerant preachers who pitched their wares to a primarily female audience in search of salvation from "female troubles." (5) In a sense this is the role played by Alfred Goodwill Spalding, arguably baseball's first pitchman. A self-made celebrity, he is remembered not so much for his considerable skill as a ballplayer but for the role he played as the popularizer of baseball as a distinctly American sport, as well as his role as a producer of sporting goods. …

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