Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Are ads featuring female athletes effective with consumers?

Many readers may have noticed a large number of ads in August featuring female Olympians during and immediately following the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Kerri Walsh Jennings, Sanya Richards-Ross and Canadian Christine Sinclair seemed to be everywhere. And, after winning gold in gymnastics, it was no surprise Gabby Douglas suddenly smiled back at us from the front of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes.

It’s certainly fitting female athletes were finally receiving more commercial endorsements, especially given American women won 58 medals, a number better than the overall medal tally for all but three countries (China, Russia, Great Britain) and more medals than the U.S. men.

But how many of those women will be able to cash in on their fame as endorsers and how many will get featured in effective ads? Researchers John Antil and Matthew Robinson from the University of Delaware will soon publish data in the Journal of Brand Strategy suggesting American companies rarely employ female athletes as spokespeople and when they do, many use them poorly.

We know from our own research and experiences that, with the exception of the superstars, most female Olympians and Paralympians do not “cash in” as many believe they should. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us.

Historically, baseball players have promoted commercial brands since the late 1800s when tobacco brands first used celebrity cards to boost sales. In fact, Yankees slugger Babe Ruth got so popular they named a candy bar after him.

Still, the use of female athletes like tennis star Suzanne Lenglen or golfer Babe Didrikson lagged well behind their male counterparts and it wasn’t until 1933 that Didrikson got endorsements deals with Wheaties, Dodge cars and Wilson golf clubs.

Was that a function of male-controlled companies moving slowly to recognize the influence and buying power of women? In that pre-World War II era, advertisers often signed female entertainers for their glamour and lavish lifestyle but female athletes were all but invisible.

The founder of the modern Olympic Games may have started that thinking. Baron Pierre de Coubertin didn’t believe women should compete in the Olympics and prohibited their participation at the first Games in Athens in 1896. Even as late as 1912, de Coubertin was writing in the Olympic Review “the Olympic Games should be reserved [only] for men. Can one grant women access to all Olympic competitions? No.”

De Coubertin’s anti-feminist stance was felt for decades and aspects of his sexism endured easily for another century. Remember, women weren’t allowed to run the Olympic marathon until 1984 and can’t start ski jumping until 2014. In fact, it wasn’t until London 2012 that men and women participated in each of the athletic disciplines at the Summer Games.

Interestingly, Antil and Robinson’s research found advertisers have long focused on a woman’s youth, beauty or sex appeal at the expense of characteristics like courage, reliability and performance. Perhaps they feel only males can showcase those traits.

Female athletes are more visbile today, but Torres’ ad didn’t impress many of the women surveyed by researchers.
As an example, Antil points to a “Got Milk” ad from 2009 featuring a then 42-year-old Olympian Dara Torres in a bikini-style swim suit. While Torres was obviously in world-class shape, it didn’t impress many of the women surveyed.

“Female respondents said this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a daughter,” Antil said. “Featuring Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might have been more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness in her 40s.”

For many readers, the previous sentence represents a “gotcha” moment. It seems sexist however it’s read, and particularly if the researchers (or columnists) relating this information are males. Torres was a swimmer. She had every right to pose in her swimsuit. That was her brand identity.

But during Antil and Robinson’s focus groups, female participants watching ads featuring an attractive female athlete frequently provided negative responses. When an endorser was much younger than the consumer, the age difference made it challenging for female consumers to relate. In these instances, both the credibility of the young female athlete endorser and the product suffered with older female participants and didn’t seem to move the needle with younger respondents.

Further, ads highlighting blatant sex appeal, such as ones featuring Danica Patrick in the shower for Go Daddy, seemed to produce heightened negative results especially when female consumers compared themselves to the spokeswoman. That’s not surprising, but Go Daddy might not have cared. They were targeting men, and women’s feelings toward Go Daddy probably didn’t matter.

Research has long shown that many men relate strongly to male athletes like Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps and male consumers aren’t put off by appearance or achievement. Gatorade’s legendary ad campaign “Be Like Mike” used song lyrics where men dreamed they were Jordan so they could fully emulate him.

Female consumers, however, appear to react differently to heroic endorsement by their own gender and may look less for recognition of heroic performances and more for an understanding of a shared struggle. Given that women are believed to purchase or influence 85 percent of all brand purchases, it’s an interesting research question to ask why female endorsers aren’t more visible. But if they are visible, should their use incorporate and feature the journey, not the destination?

In a year when more women than men participated on the U.S. Olympic team and won more gold medals (for the first time ever), one would think these women would enjoy increased endorsement opportunities. But perhaps this will only happen when advertisers better understand female customers.

Women may control the majority of household disposable spending and heavily influence household purchase decisions, but they appear to be very particular about who tells them what to buy and when to buy it.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and was a co-author on the research referenced above. Norm O’Reilly ( is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.