Right Brain, Left Brain | In the Digital Age, Beware the Brand Ambassador

The dramatic, public falls-from-grace of Nike brand ambassadors Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods should create pause for high-profile brand association in the digital age.

Oscar Pistorius Nike Ad | Source: Nike

LONDON, United Kingdom – News last week that Oscar Pistorius, erstwhile Olympic and Paralympic hero, had been arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steencamp, in the sleepy South African city of Pretoria, made front-page headlines around the world.

It’s not the first time there has been controversy around Mr Pistorius. His participation in London’s 2012 Olympic Games as a double amputee running with the assistance of carbon-fibre prosthetic blades, left him open to attack from competitors who accused Pistorius of having an unfair advantage against able-bodied runners.

Although Pistorius managed to overcome this scandal, it’s unlikely he will ever come back from this latest incident which has rocked the entire sporting world. As a brand ambassodor for Nike, which had featured Mr Pistorius in high-profile advertisements, his personal problems also dragged Nike, the world’s most successful sporting brand, into the fray.

It’s the third time in as many years that Nike has found itself closely linked to a high-profile brand ambassador who has experienced a dramatic, public fall-from-grace. Last year, when Lance Armstrong, another Nike brand ambassador, finally admitted to years of doping, Nike finally disassociated itself from the cyclist who had really come to define the whole Nike cycling brand. And, a few years earlier, when Tiger Woods’ lecherous infidelity was exposed in excruciating detail in the global media, once again, Nike also experienced collateral damage.

Not only did these athletes endorse the Nike brand, but the company also endorsed them. As Buzzfeed argued, these were “larger-than-life characters whose mythic personas were created, cultivated, and relentlessly amplified by the shoe company.”

Last week, Nike also distanced itself from the so-called ‘blade-runner,’ suspending its endorsement deal with Pistorius, pending the outcome of his trial. Clarins, the French cosmetics and fragrance company, also cancelled its advertising campaign for A-Men, a Thierry Mugler fragrance, which also featured Mr Pistorius.

But in the digital age, does cancelling endorsement deals and suspending campaigns really erase a brand’s connection with a disgraced ambassador?

One bizarrely prophetic Pistorius Nike ad included the slogan “I am the bullet in the chamber,” providing much fodder for viral discussion on social media, where the Pistorius ads and YouTube videos will live on in eternity and infamy.

Also making the rounds last week was a photoshopped spoof Nike Ad that speaks for itself:

Nike Tiger Woods Lance Armstrong Oscar Pistorius