Converse, Spalding vow to keep Magic on ad team

November 14, 1991|By Paul Hemp | Paul Hemp,Boston Globe

BOSTON -- In sickness and in health.

That was the pledge two major Massachusetts sporting goods companies made yesterday to Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers star who stunned the world last week by announcing he is infected with the AIDS virus and retiring from basketball.

In a move that could affect how companies use sports heroes in endorsements, Converse Inc. and Spalding Sports Worldwide said Johnson will continue to promote their products. In addition, Converse said it will launch a public service television advertising campaign, featuring Johnson, that supports AIDS education and research.

The question behind these bold marketing moves: Can moral courage, as well as athletic prowess, be used to sell sneakers and basketballs?

"Magic should be admired for the way he has dealt with this private problem in a public way," said Converse's president, Gib Ford.

The sensitive issue of Johnson's future as an endorser -- which reportedly brings him as much as $12 million annually from half a dozen companies nationally -- has made the companies he works for extremely cautious since his announcement. Conscious that his condition could reflect badly on their products, but wary about abandoning such a popular personality, most of them have straddled the fence.

"There's great sensitivity around here about what goes out," said an official at one company whose products Johnson endorses. "We don't want what we say to be misconstrued as opportunist, callous or ghoulish," added the official, who asked not to be named.

When an advertising executive involved with a coming TV campaign for Nestle's Crunch bars featuring Johnson said last week he thought the commercials would be scrapped, Nestle swiftly issued a statement saying his observations were "not authorized" by the company. But Nestle did not contradict his assessment.

Pepsi-Cola Co. and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which have used Johnson widely for endorsements, said yesterday they are weighing their options. The two PepsiCo units are not using the player in any advertising campaigns at present.

"This is an unprecedented case," said Anne Ward, a Pepsi-Cola spokeswoman. "There is no road map to help companies decide what to do."

That hesitation made yesterday's vows by Converse and Spalding to retain Johnson all the more striking.

Converse said Johnson will continue to appear in product advertisements, doing a commercial with Larry Bird in support of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

The company also said it plans a public information television and radio campaign -- to be called "Magic's Athletes Against AIDS" -- that will include figures from professional and college basketball.

Converse said it initially will spend $1 million of network commercial time on the campaign, which will be launched before the end of the year. The company said it also will contribute $100,000 to the Magic Johnson Foundation, which the player has formed to channel funds to a number of organizations doing AIDS research. Although Converse said there are escape clauses in its contract with Johnson, which runs through 1995, they won't be exercised, the company said.

Advertising executives said Converse could benefit from its decision to stand by Johnson.

"By being pro-active about this, Converse will enhance their image for years to come," said Michele Shibuya, head of sports sponsorship for an L.A. legal firm. "And enhancing that strong brand image will ultimately help them sell their product."

Converse may not have had much choice, facing even bigger risks if it had dumped Johnson. The company said yesterday it had received 250 unsolicited calls urging it to keep Johnson as a spokesman. By using Johnson primarily for public service spots, it may be able to reap the benefits of an enlightened policy while not casting a shadow over the reputation of its products.

Spalding also said it will continue to use Johnson to endorse its products. Just two days ago, the firm ordered another million "growth" posters featuring Johnson that it currently includes with basketballs it sells.

These are signs that even if Johnson's playing days are over, his residual star appeal remains, Lacey said. "Just because the man contracts a disease doesn't mean he's any less of a player. And Magic has always transcended being just a player."

In fact, Johnson's highly regarded persona may mean that the decision to continue to use him isn't all that radical.

"Continuing to use Magic as an endorser is entirely consistent with the reasons why you'd use him in the beginning," said James Mullen, president of Mullen Advertising Inc. "His values reflect positively on the company and the products that it makes."

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