Basketball stars, but without Magic, will show up in AIDS announcements

December 30, 1991|By Paul Hemp | Paul Hemp,Boston Globe

The warnings come in rapid-fire succession. "If Magic Johnson can get the AIDS virus, then anybody can get it," says Phoenix Suns star Kevin Johnson. "You can get AIDS," adds University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

"Anybody can get this," concludes Charlotte Hornets rookie Larry Johnson, staring straight into the camera and pointing his finger ominously.

This somber advice from some of basketball's biggest names is part of the first television commercial in support of Magic Johnson's AIDS education campaign. The 30-second spot, produced and paid for by the athletic shoe maker Converse Inc., is expected to be aired during prime time, beginning this week.

But, hey, wait: Where's Magic?

"We felt it was more meaningful to have other people involved," said Converse's president, Gib Ford. "Magic's been pretty visible lately. There's the concern that it might be wearing a bit thin." Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent, concurred: "People have already seen Magic speak about AIDS. I don't think you want to force-feed when you're educating people."

Johnson's absence from the $1 million television campaign -- called "Magic's Athletes Against AIDS" -- highlights the complex issues facing companies as they decide how to deal with AIDS in their promotion and advertising.

One such issue: Would there be the same concerns about media XTC overexposure if Johnson had been regularly appearing on television talk shows as basketball's Most Valuable Player rather than as someone suffering from the virus that causes AIDS?

The former Los Angeles Lakers star stunned the world last month when he announced that he is infected with the virus and would retire from professional basketball. Since then, praise for his courage in speaking about his condition and his vow to lead a public education drive about AIDS have been tempered by many people's feelings about a disease associated with sexual promiscuity.

This ambivalence, as well as Johnson's retirement, has led most companies for whom Johnson has been a spokesman to take a wait-and-see attitude concerning his appearance in future advertising.

But widespread public affection for Johnson has made companies reluctant to abandon him altogether.

Converse says Johnson may appear in future public education spots. He also is slated to appear in a Converse advertisement next year with Celtics star Larry Bird that pays tribute to their involvement with the Olympic basketball team.

Unlike most television public service announcements -- which are aired by networks free of charge when time is available -- this one will be placed on shows, including "Saturday Night Live" and "Married . . . With Children," that are watched by the targeted audience of teen-agers.

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