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Johnson’s Career As Advertising Pitchman Loses Its Magic

December 27, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Few advertisers have firm plans to keep Magic Johnson as their product pitchman, despite strong statements of support following the basketball star’s announcement he is infected with the AIDS virus.

While eagerly committing money to Johnson’s AIDS research and education foundation, many companies are less enthusiastic about a national ad campaign with Johnson, now forever associated with the deadly disease.

Johnson’s contract with Pepsi-Cola Co. ends this summer and any new campaign using Johnson ″is not on the front burner,″ said Andrew Giangola, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola in Somers, N.Y.

Nestle Chocolate and Confection Co. of Purchase, N.Y., had plans to air a Nestle’s Crunch bar commercial with Johnson in February. But since Johnson’s stunning disclosure, plans are up in the air.

″It is different now and he has accepted that,″ Johnson’s agent, Lon Rosen, said. ″What’s important to him now is to deliver a message.″

After Johnson’s emotional announcement at a Nov. 7 news conference, companies moved swiftly to pledge loyalty, whether out of fealty or fear of seeming to abandon the popular sports star.

″Companies will fully support his public commitment (on behalf of AIDS) and refrain from using him in active advertising. But you won’t find any new companies coming on board,″ said Marty Blackman, who with his firm, Blackman and Raber Ltd. of New York, advises companies on the use of celebrities in national advertising.

Instead of Johnson for Pepsi-Cola, it may be Johnson for AIDS awareness sponsored by Pepsi-Cola.

Minneapolis-based Target Stores is the only company recently to televise commercials featuring Johnson, who promoted the store’s electronics goods for the Christmas season. Those commercials already were completed before Johnson’s announcement.

Target spokesman George Hite said they rarely use a celebrity more than once and had no plans to employ Johnson again.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, also owned by PepsiCo, said they want to back his foundation but doubt they will feature Johnson again in an ad campaign. But officials deny the decision has anything to do with his HIV status.

″We sent him a note the day of the (Nov. 7) announcement saying we were completely supportive and we would stand by him,″ said Steve Provost, a spokesman for Louisville, Ky.-based KFC.

″We’re not sure Magic wants to go back to selling products,″ Provost said.

A notable exception to advertiser reluctance regarding Johnson is the continued use of the athlete by sporting goods firm Converse Inc. of North Reading, Mass. Converse has been involved with the basketball star since he joined the NBA in 1979.

Johnson will be linked to athletic shoes in television ads scheduled for the summer Olympics to air around the United States basketball games, said Converse marketing executive June Farese.

″In general, consumer response has been extraordinarily positive,″ she said. ″We are more concerned with the higher level of what he’s going to do, and try to do the best we can with something sad.″

Spalding Sports Worldwide did not return numerous phone messages left at its Chicopee, Mass., office. But published reports have indicated they will continue to sell their Magic Johnson basketballs.

Converse and Spalding plan to help Johnson get his message about AIDS out to the public.

Blackman said he’s had inquiries from numerous companies since Johnson’s announcement and he tells all of them the same thing.

″You have a lot of concerns,″ he said. ″What happens if Magic Johnson becomes sick in two months? You can’t plan a year to two-year campaign using Magic Johnson.

″Always put yourself in the position of the president of a large public corporation,″ he said. ″In New York, Chicago and L.A., what you might tolerate is not what they are going to tolerate in the other 47 states.

″You can’t afford to take the chance that a fairly large population might look upon Magic Johnson’s conduct as not exemplary,″ explained Blackman.

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