Case will be major test of product endorsements Disease might scare advertisers away

November 08, 1991|By Stuart Elliott | Stuart Elliott,New York Times News Service HC

The use of professional athletes as product spokesmen is about to undergo a landmark test now that Magic Johnson, who has earned more than $12 million a year from commercials and other endorsements, has become the first such star to announce publicly that he has the AIDS virus.

Some advertising and sports marketing executives said yesterday that it was likely that Johnson, one of the most visible spokesmen in American professional sports, would all but vanish from his endorsing venues.

Others suggested that companies deciding to end their relationships with the Los Angeles Lakers star could face a backlash from a sympathetic public.

John L. Taylor, vice chairman at Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor in New York, said that he doubted his ad agency would run a

new series of television commercials, which were produced last month, for the Nestle Crunch candy bar.

The contract that Johnson signed with the company, announced on Sept. 30, was predicated on his being an active basketball player, Taylor added.

"We need to wait for all the information to come out," he continued. "But there is a gap between what he was yesterday and what he will be tomorrow. We have a lot of people in this country with a lot of prejudice about AIDS."

Marty Blackman, a principal at Blackman & Raber, a sports and entertainment marketing consulting firm in New York, said that there would probably be no company "bold enough" to use Johnson for any new commercials.

He speculated that those already having contracts with Johnson would allow them to expire quietly so as to avoid "a public relations disaster."

Several other companies that have hired Johnson as an endorser or spokesman, including Pepsi-Cola and Converse, expressed deep concern and support about his condition, but said in statements that their future ad plans would await direct discussions with him.

"We'll do the right thing," said a spokeswoman for Pepsi, "but right now, he has more important things to think about."

The companies Johnson has contracts with include: Pepsi, for which he has worked since 1989, for Diet Pepsi and Mandarin Orange Slice soft drinks; Converse, for which he has worked since 1979; Kentucky Fried Chicken, for which he appeared in commercials last spring; NBA Properties; Spalding, and Nintendo.

Coincidentally, none of the companies are running any ads featuring Johnson.

Howard Bragman, a public-relations executive in Beverly Hills, Calif., who represents celebrity clients as well as AIDS organizations, called Johnson's announcement "a devastating personal tragedy," adding, "It offers incredible potential for the public good."

Bragman said he believed that if Johnson had made his disclosure five years ago, "people would have rushed to drop him."

"But since then, we've made some incredible strides," Bragman said. The announcement "may make mainstream advertisers get involved in the AIDS crisis," he added.

Bragman suggested that Johnson could now appear in public-service announcements, aimed at young people, about AIDS and the virus that causes it.

Indeed, at his news conference, Johnson said he wanted to be "a spokesman for the virus."

Other athletes with lucrative endorsement contracts have been told that they had no futures in commercials when their health took a turn for the worse, though none have suffered from an illness as devastating and with as much stigma as AIDS.

When Bo Jackson injured his hip and was released by the Kansas City Royals, many advertising executives predicted that his career as a spokesman had come to an end.

Nike, however, put the injury to use in a series of "Bo knows rehabilitation" commercials that showed him working his way back to health.

Some advertising executives said yesterday that it would be difficult, though not impossible, to find a similar upbeat way to present Johnson's ailment.

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