Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, whose once wholesome reputation took a blow in a high-profile domestic violence case this year, will no longer "raise the green flag" for M&T Bank.
Rice has starred in one of the bank's most recognizable and successful branding efforts for the past four years, but the Ravens-themed advertising campaign kicked off Monday without the former pitchman. None of his teammates appear in the ads either.
M&T's new advertisements instead stress the team effort between the the Ravens and their corporate sponsor, with the spokesman role shifting to Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh, team President Dick Cass and the bank's president of the Baltimore region, Augie Chiasera.
Bank officials did not comment on the apparent end of the relationship with Rice, who was indicted in March on charges of assault against his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, after allegedly hitting her at an Atlantic City casino. Rice, who agreed to a pretrial diversion program to avoid jail time, faces a two-game suspension by the NFL.
"Our campaign is focused on teamwork and celebrating that teamwork," said Betsey Locke, M&T's group vice president for advertising and sponsorships, adding that the bank in May extended its naming rights and sponsorship agreement with the Ravens, a $60 million, 10-year deal. "Our partnership with the Ravens has been a great example of the power of teamwork. We have been able to do great things for the community. This gave us a great opportunity to talk about that partnership."
One longtime fan called the switch a needed move for M&T, one that was likely prompted by Rice's troubles. Sheri Fuller of Silver Spring said she was glad the bank didn't just opt for another player.
"This is bigger than Ray," Fulled said. "Obviously that was the biggest blemish of the off-season. But… other players were arrested, so M&T Bank, being the partner of the team, they definitely needed to do some PR with our community, starting with a more positive image, and using things that have happened in the community… that was the first step."
Since the incident, Rice has faced mixed reaction from fans and sponsors alike.
At the time of his arrest in February, CarBiz said he would remain a spokesman. But BodyArmor SuperDrink removed Rice from its promotional materials earlier this year. And he hasn't appeared in a Gillette advertisement for more than a year.
"It makes sense that a brand might distance themselves from [Rice], but this [M&T campaign] is more about that campaign being around teamwork and leaders at the front of the campaign, more so than against Ray," said Matt Saler, director of sports marketing for IMRE. "John Harbaugh might be a more natural fit for a campaign around teamwork. It makes sense that the leaders of the team from a business and football standpoint are front and center, that they're the faces of this ad."
The new TV, radio, online and in-branch advertising continues a long standing partnership between the Buffalo, N.Y.-based bank and the team that includes branding exposure as the team's official bank in addition to the stadium name. A TV spot shows Harbaugh in the Raven's locker room talking about the bank partnership, local children running across the stadium field and volunteers renovating a house.
Past ads have featured players such as Rice, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and former tight end Todd Heap, but "we're featuring leadership in this case," Locke said. "When we were filming [Harbaugh] said, 'We travel faster alone, but we go farther together. He's a great spokesperson."
Harbaugh on Monday said Cass and owner Steve Bisciotti asked him to appear in the ad.
"I'm not the spokesman for anybody. It was nothing like that," he said. "It was just, 'Do the commercial.' That's part of the responsibilities here because of the affiliation with M&T. I was happy to do it because they're great people."
But Margaret E. Johnson, associate professor and co-director of the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law, questioned M&T Bank using any member of the Ravens organization as a spokesperson because she viewed the team's response to the incident as "tepid."
The bank had little choice but to replace Rice, she said.
"If you think about basic economics, they're figuring that that domestic violence doesn't help them sell bank accounts to the majority of families, many of whom have women heading up the finances," said Johnson, who added that M&T ought to launch a Ravens-backed campaign against domestic violence.
Rice took on the M&T spokesperson role before the 2010 season, as part of the bank's "Raise the Green Flag" campaign, which was designed during the recession to reassure customers and depict "a strong ray of hope in a time of turmoil," according to advertising agency Crowley Webb, which created the campaign.