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Johnson’s AIDS Virus Poses Dilemma for Marketers

November 8, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Magic Johnson’s stunning admission that he has been infected with the virus that causes AIDS creates a dilemma for marketers that have paid the popular athlete handsomely for commercial endorsements.

What do they do now?

Some advertising experts said people are so afraid of the disease that Johnson’s career as an effective product pitchman is over.

But others say the admission made him a hugely sympathetic figure and that companies who drop him risk alienating customers. They say there would be no more compelling spokesman at the moment than Johnson.

Some suggest companies could score a huge public relations coup by helping underwrite the AIDS education campaign that Johnson wants to pursue.

A public service campaign like that could address a growing national problem, secure a company’s reputation as a solid citizen and help sales, they say.

The Los Angeles Lakers basketball superstar caught nearly everyone by surprise Thursday in disclosing that he had the HIV virus that causes the incurable AIDS disease and was retiring from the pro basketball.

Several sports talent agents said the disclosure probably ended Johnson’s commercial career as well. Consistently rated among the most popular athlete endorsers, Johnson makes an estimated $2 million to $12 million a year from commercials and other promotions.

His roster of recent sponsorship ties include Pepsi-Cola Co., Converse Inc., Kentucky Fried Chicken, Target Stores, Spalding Sports Worldwide and Nestle Foods Co. Those companies expressed support for Johnson but were non- committal about plans to use him in future promotions.

″We have meetings scheduled all day,″ said Greg Sherry, a spokesman for Spalding. ″I really can’t say what we will do.″

Minneapolis-based Target evidently is the only company currently using Johnson in ads. Spokesman George Hite told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press no changes were being made in that campaign that runs until next Friday.

Nestle announced five weeks ago that it had signed Johnson to a two-year contract to appear for its Nestle Crunch candy bar, but hasn’t aired ads yet.

″We support Magic,″ Frank J. Arthofer, the president of Nestle Chocolate and Confection Co. Inc., said in a statement Friday. ″We await the opportunity to discuss our next steps with him.″

Advertisers generally shy away from celebrities who have personal problems for fear that they could reflect negatively on their products. David Burns, who heads a service matching athletes and advertisers in Chicago, said he expected any company with ads featuring Johnson on the air would quit using them.

But Vangie Hayes, who hires actors and celebrities for ads created by J. Walter Thompson, said such decisions would depend on how Johnson was used.

His infection with the AIDS virus probably means he would no longer be effective in ads emphasizing his good health and high energy, she said.

But she said advertisers could probably find some other way to use Johnson, such as by sponsoring the public service campaign against AIDS for which he has volunteered to be the spokesman.

Lloyd Kolmer, a New York-based talent negotiator, said Johnson is so well- liked that he ″won’t lose a dime″ on current endorsement affiliations.

″I don’t think he’ll get new endorsements but I am positive that the people who now employ him will not pull away from him now,″ Kolmer said.

Michael Hughes, vice chairman and creative director at the Martin Agency, an advertising agency in Richmond, Va., said Johnson is ″one of the few heros out there″ and his candid admission of infection didn’t diminish that.

″If you are an advertiser, there should be a lot of rewards tying into a guy who is still a hero but is now fighting on a different court,″ Hughes said. ″He may be the most believable endorser in the world now.″

But at the same time, he said companies would have to be careful in how they used Johnson to avoid looking like crass opportunists.

Charles Garfield, a faculty member in the psychiatry department at the University of California Medical School and an organizer of programs to help AIDS victims and their families, said Johnson’s illness gives companies a chance to make a real impact in the fight against AIDS or for other social causes.

″The fact that he is so compelling to all of us now will make him even more engaging than he weas before,″ Garfield said. ″Before he was different from us, but now he is tragically human.″

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