study out of Syracuse has found that female athletes aren't as likely as their male counterparts to find jobs as brand spokespeople – and that when American companies do use sportswomen as spokespeople, they don't use them correctly.
Co-authored by Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University's Falk College, and John Antil and Matthew Robinson of the University Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, the study shows that despite women athletes' awesome showing at the London Olympics, their achievements may not translate to lucrative brand contracts off the field.
Using athletes to boost branding is a time-honored technique going back to the late 19th century; tobacco companies upped sales with baseball cards, and starting in the 1910s, stars like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb hawked products like soap, cereal, and Girl Scout cookies. Americans quickly got used to seeing sports stars selling them flour and underpants (…right?), but sportswomen didn't get their piece of the endorsement-deal pie until much later. Tennis star Suzanne Lenglen and multi-sport star Babe Didrikson did get deals to shill for Wheaties, Dodge, and Wilson golf clubs, but not until the mid-'30s.
And when women are selected as brand spokespeople, advertisers often take the wrong approach with the female athletes – positioning them based on "youth and sex appeal" instead of their athletic abilities. In nine focus groups, participants asked to react to ads had negative responses to the spots that focused on a sportswoman's pulchritude (the sex-appeal-based ads were particularly unsuccessful when consumers compared themselves to the spokeswoman). And in some cases, the female athletes just couldn't win; endorsers who were much younger than the consumers weren't as relatable.
Burton and the other authors think that highlighting similarities between the spokeswoman and the potential buyer might work better, because men and women may perceive "heroic athletes" differently. Burton cautions that they need more data – but it seems like "males embrace heroic athletes like Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps and are not put off by their appearance or achievement." Thus the "Be Like Mike" campaign, he says. "But female consumers appear to react differently to heroic endorsement by their own gender."
The study also mentions the 2011 list by Sports Illustrated of the 50 highest-paid American athletes – which contained zero women. Not only that, the researchers found that even building a list of well-known sportswomen, regardless of their pay grade, was much harder than they'd thought.
So, there's a dearth of female athletes "famous enough," apparently, to serve as effective spokespeople – and even the better-known brand ambassadors may be backing the wrong products, or packaged the wrong way by the companies. Between the rising numbers of women in sports (they outnumbered the men at this year's Olympics) and the notable number of Olympic athletes in recent ad campaigns, we may see that upward trend continue, the researchers say – and they hope the positioning of female athletes as provocative pin-ups is coming to an end, if only because preliminary data suggests that female consumers don't respond to it.
Showing female athletes kicking butt as spokespeople, instead of the butts themselves? Yeah, I'd rather see that too.
For more on the study, click right here. In the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the comments. Do advertisers make the right use of the female athletes they DO employ? Can you think of women in sports that should have endorsement deals? Would you be more likely to buy a product if a female athlete you respect is the face of the product? And what the Sam Hill was the Babe doing selling undies?
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