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Ad Experts Say AIDS Admission Could End Johnson’s Ad Career As Well

November 8, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Can Earvin Johnson with the AIDS virus still work magic for commerical advertisers?

The news on Thursday stunned companies who have paid millions to put the Los Angeles Lakers’ star in commercials for everything from soft drinks and fried chicken to athletic shoes and video games.

Johnson’s agent, Lon Rosen, said the advertisers have been supportive and told him it would be ″business as usual.″

But the companies were non-committal when asked about plans to use him in the future.

″It brings it to an unfortunate halt,″ said Marty Blackman, who heads a firm that matches sports figures and advertisers. Blackman estimated Johnson makes $2 million to $3 million a year from endorsements.

David Burns, who runs a sports talent negotiating service in Chicago, said Johnson is probably through as a commercial spokesman.

″My feeling is that any current commercials that are running will all be pulled off because they associate your product with a negative, and that isn’t what you want to do,″ he said.

Johnson announced Thursday was he was retiring from pro basketball after learning he had contracted the AIDS virus.

″We are supportive of his decision and we wish him well,″ said Craig Weatherup, president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America in Somers, N.Y. ″For the future, we’ll decide that together.″

Johnson appeared in ads for Pepsi’s Mandarin Slice soft drinks a year ago, and also appeared as one of a number of celebrities in a Diet Pepsi ad that ran about three years ago.

But Johnson was more than just a spokesman for Pepsi products. In July 1990, he became a general partner in the Pepsi-Cola distributorship in Washington, D.C.

″We are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of Magic’s illness and retirement from the Lakers,″ said Gib Ford, president of Converse Inc., the sports shoe company based in North Reading, Mass.

But Ford said he would have no further comment until speaking directly with Johnson and his agent.

Johnson has been associated since 1979 with Converse, which until about six months ago marketed a line of sports, leisure and basketball shoes named Magic and featured him in 10 to 12 commercials over the years.

Johnson signed earlier this year with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and appeared this spring in ads promoting its ″Hot and Spicy Chicken,″ said Richard Detwiler, a spokesman for the Louisville, Ky.-based fast-food chain.

″Certainly we are shocked and saddened to hear this news. We have been big fans of Magic Johnson for a long time,″ he said.

But Detwiler added it was ″too soon to say whether this will have any bearing on any future business relationship″ with Johnson.

He said Johnson is not currently appearing in any ads for KFC, and he said he did not know what contractual arrangement had been made with him.

Johnson, whose smile became his trademark, was rated as one of the most popular athletes in commercials, according to a survey earlier this year by the research firm Video Storyboard Test Inc.

Johnson finished fourth in the survey ranking behind Michael Jordan of basketball’s Chicago Bulls, Bo Jackson of baseball’s Chicago White Sox and football’s Los Angeles Raiders and Tommy Lasorda, the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball manager. The survey involved interviews of 2,000 people across the country.

Blackman said Johnson’s condition means advertisers will have to start adding AIDS to the list of concerns they consider in signing an athlete for their commercials.

But he said companies with Johnson already under contract now face a delicate situation, downplaying his role for their companies while not appearing to dump him when he is down.

Burns said Johnson could continue to be an effective spokesman for efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS.

In his news conference Thursday afternoon, Johnson said he hoped to serve just such a role.

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