When it comes to exposing contradictions, video is vigilant -- just ask Brian Williams. There’s one arena, however, in which video’s policing power appears less potent: advertising endorsement -- just ask LeBron James.
The NBA superstar and prolific promoter made headlines with an interview he gave at a recent Cleveland Cavaliers shoot-around. Asked how his training regimen had changed since starting his professional basketball career over a decade ago, James suggested that unlike today, taking care of his body back then “didn’t matter.”
More specifically, he described how, in the early years, he “didn’t stretch” and “didn’t ice.” He added how he “ate McDonald's” -- hardly a flattering comment, given that James has a sponsorship deal with the fast food behemoth worth a reported $4 million a year.
Reporters assisted “The King” in realizing that he had Egg McMuffin on his face, asking him how often he eats at McDonald’s now. James quickly rebounded, smiling slyly and replying repeatedly “every day,” which led those listening to burst into laughter.
Despite his lucrative endorsement deal, it’s not surprising that James doesn’t eat McDonald’s food, at least not with any regularity. Clearly, he realized that a diet inclusive of Quarter-Pounders with cheese, McNuggets and fries would sideline his recent plan to slim-down to top playing condition. So he relocated his meal plan away from the Golden Arches, even as his endorsement deal played on.
Why didn’t James’s change in consumption cause him to give up his McDonald’s sponsorship? Or, perhaps more important: Why do people frown on similar acts of duplicity by their peers but think it’s fine for a celebrity endorser to earn millions claiming to do something he/she doesn’t?
Others lose their credibility and/or jobs for such breaches of integrity. Do ad spokespeople deserve a double standard?
The short answer is “no.” Truth should be truth and reflect a person’s word, no matter what the context. Endorsement creates no compelling reason for a pass on honesty. In fact, given the reach and impact of advertising, spokespeople should be all the more sensitive to the integrity inherent in what they -- as role models -- represent.
For instance, not everyone sees the disconnect between a diet heavy in fast food and strong athletic performance, or, more simply, a healthy lifestyle. So, when some consumers believe that a favorite athlete frequents fast food restaurants without experiencing any ill effects, they may think they can do the same. And that's just wrong.
Besides the negative societal impact that disingenuous endorsement creates, there's the likely fallout on the sponsoring brand. McDonald’s, for example, will probably take a hit from James’ misstep. Similarly, the brand that is LeBron will also suffer at least some loss of credibility, with consumers and potential sponsors alike.
In contrast, consider another basketball star, Kevin Durant. This NBA player offers an example of sponsorship anchored in honesty: Last summer, Durant signed a deal to endorse Sparkling Ice, a zero-calorie carbonated water that comes in a variety of fruit flavors. Sparkling Ice wasn’t even looking for celebrity endorsers when Durant, a loyal Sparkling Ice user in real life, approached the company to inquire about a possible partnership. Kevin Klock, CEO of the brand's parent company, Talking Rain, immediately knew they had what they wanted in a sponsorship relationship: “authenticity.”
And authenticity counts. It’s good that people are finally being held responsible for words and actions that contradict. It's good that we have the tools: Smartphone video cameras and instant Internet uploads make it easier than ever to spot inconsistencies.
The same accountability should apply to advertising endorsers; it’s only a matter of time until it will. Moving forward, companies must increasingly ensure endorsement that’s authentic.