Nike, Lance Armstrong and Moral Relativism

18 10 2012

This is a post I wrote for MB’s internal intranet thingy. Whilst I’ve edited it a bit, for that reason it may have a slightly different tone to my usual Research Geek posts and doesn’t have any swearing in it. But I thought, as I’d written it, I might as well share it in case there are any readers out there that still remember this blog exists:

So, Nike have dropped Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong has also resigned as head of his Livestrong Foundation.

I don’t think Nike had much choice here. Not only is Armstrong a proven cheat but it seems he was also involved in encouraging (or “bullying” according to the testimony) his team mates into doing the same. It seems he may well have been encouraging his team mates to “Just Do It” in a rather different context from that which Nike intends. Armstrong and US Postal were far from alone in their cheating though. I saw a stat recently which said that the fastest up the Alpe d’Huez (the Tour de France’s most notorious and difficult climb) this year would have been 41st fastest in 2001. [EDIT, I had read this stat but hadn’t checked, it isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off – the fastest in 2011, Pierre Rolland would have been 40th in 2001.] Doping was rife, it seems Armstrong was just much better at it than everyone else. I suppose there’s some achievement there at least.

There are also those questioning whether Nike knew more than they are letting on at the time and, indeed, whether they were even involved in covering up the doping. Whether that’s true or not, they would not want any further attention drawn to those accusations which would be unavoidable as the story continues to unravel. A continued association with him would have made the regular resurfacing of these allegations unavoidable.

What’s interesting here from a brand point of view is the decision that his reputation is beyond repair and a continued association with Nike could only be negative for the brand. Contrast that with their handling of the Tiger Woods fall from grace and the difference is palpable (they also stuck by Kobe Bryant when he was accused of rape.) Indeed, Nike trumpeted the fact they were sticking with Woods with a controversial ad.

Many commentators thought this was a mistake and was in bad taste and that Woods should be dropped. Until recently, they seemed to be taking the same approach with Armstrong. Indeed, in 2001 they had explicitly supported him in their ‘What am I on?’ ad. At that time I can’t imagine Nike knew what was going on. If they did, it was a spectacularly risky route to go down.

I think there are three important differences between Armstrong and Woods that encouraged Nike to stick with him. First of all, Woods admitted he was in the wrong and apologised. Granted he only did so after being caught out, but at least he did so. Armstrong, as far as I’m aware, has yet to explicitly admit his guilt and apologise for misleading people. Up until very recently he was still clinging to the “never had a negative test” line and pushing that over and over again. Secondly, Woods’ indiscretions were, shall we say, extracurricular – he was not accused of cheating at the sport for which he was famed. Sure, his clean cut image took a big whack, but his achievements as a sportsman, his ability to ‘Just Do It’ was unaffected. Arguably, one of Tiger’s weaknesses as a brand property was that he apparently had no weaknesses – his continued success was machine-like. The rehabilitation after the fall of which Nike was making themselves an explicit part could make the partnership stronger, the Tiger was human after all. And that brings me to the third difference, that Woods is still playing and still at the top of the game. Of course, it’s a long while since he’s won a major and he doesn’t dominate the sport as he did before, but he’s still easily its biggest name. Perhaps this, in part, motivated Armstrong’s most recent comeback?

All of this raises an issue of moral relativism for brands – when is an indiscretion sufficient to cut your ties with a celebrity? Is an indiscretion against your sport really a worse thing than one against your wife? Morally, of course not. Do I care about that one way or the other, or am I simply worried about the continuing credibility of a celebrity to endorse my brand? I suspect the latter is true, though few would admit it. There is no moral judgement, simply a brand value judgement. For many brands, their values would determine that the call may be seen from outside as having been made on moral grounds but the cynic in me suspects that, in reality, that’s not the case.

I was dubious about Nike’s strategy with Woods. I didn’t like the way is father was used in the ad above. But in the long term I think they were right to stick with him. I think brands are usually too quick to pull the trigger when their endorsers fall from grace. Celebrities are human. Providing they acknowledge their mistakes and apologise in an appropriate way, they can often come back stronger. But you do need to be brave to stick by them.

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2 responses

29 10 2012
T. Lieberman

Certainly the question of when to cut ties with a celebrity involves judgments both of morality and of brand value. But why specifically “moral relativism”?

30 10 2012
AJ

Well, I’m no philosopher, but I guess where I was coming from was that brands have their own cultures and from that they will have some sort of moral code. To Nike, cheating at sport is a bigger issue than cheating on your wife. To another brand, the opposite may be true. To yet another, any indiscretion would be intolerable. No one of those positions is necessarily more correct than the other – it depends what works for the culture of that brand. Therein lies the relativism, at least in my surface level understanding of it.

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