The ad man's new pitch

Footballers flogging Horlicks, athletes selling underwear - sport is scoring more than sex in the advertising game

In early June 1998, just before the World Cup, three major British institutions were reshuffled: the Shadow Cabinet, the Spice Girls and the England football team. It was reverse order in the media coverage, however, because the England team choice involved the Sacking of Gazza, Gazza's Drunken Binge, the Tears-of-a-Clown Gazza and the End of Gazza, which meant that the media - at every class level - gave it acres of space and miles of analysis. The previous week, The Times had run a television- advertised, front-page exclusive interview feature: "Danny Baker, The Gazza Interview". Danny Baker and Gazza in The Times. That was how far it had gone ... sports marketing.

Over the last 10 years, British sport has caught up with the notion of sports and sports stars as electronic intellectual property rights, walking sandwich-boards, celebrity endorsers, guarantors of media crossover, the province of the accountant and the marketeer. It is a big business. It's an American idea of course, rooted in the conjunction of national network TV, pay-per-view big football and big sports agents like Mark McCormack, the man who made Arnold Palmer a multi-millionaire way back when. And the financial core of it, for the stars, the clubs and the agents was advertiser-supported media. That was how all the money came sloshing in - the hundreds of millions of dollars from the official sponsors, and the incredibly expensive ad-breaks in the big games.

I watch at least three hours of television advertising at a stretch every week on a dedicated tape. I've written about advertising in the Independent on Sunday for the last four and a half years. Over that period - what we might call the Nick Hornby era- I've seen the growth of sports marketing, through the Atlanta Olympics and the European Cup into the mad crescendo of the World Cup. As I write, at least one hour of this week's new advertising tape is taken up with sports-related advertising. It's the dominant single theme.

As far as advertising is concerned, sport is the new rock 'n' roll. And, like rock 'n' roll's transformation into the music industry, sport has been hugely professionalised, organised and mainstreamed to yield points of access and commercial exploitation just about everywhere, in every superstore, with every kind and condition of person.

Advertising uses sports themes and sports people to sell practically anything now - and some of the connections look extremely tenuous. So for instance Horlicks, the valetudinarian night-time drink, recently launched a new campaign, with all the usual womanly bedtime themes, that ended dramatically with the footballer Les Ferdinand taking his clothes off. Horlicks is just one of a range of advertisers with absolutely no previously visible connection with sport, fitness, men or youth that had suddenly seen a new angle: spoof sex.

Sports stars are extremely versatile - and there are so many of them to choose from, with such constant visibility. It makes sense, as they're mainly extremely famous, fit, good-looking ("uglies" get rooted out unless they are "characters") young people with practically no cultural baggage whatsoever (except the loyalties attached to their teams and countries), who seem prepared to do absolutely anything.

Young sports stars have risen without trace to form the infantry of B and C list celebrities, along with TV soap stars, weather-girls and second- rank musicians. If young women can see sports stars as sex objects, then grannies can think of conspicuously "nice" stars, like footballer Gary Lineker, as grandsons; young men can see them as their idealised peer groups; early teens can see them as parents or older siblings - and you can perm it any other which way.

But the groups that most obviously idolise sports stars - and footballers in particular - are advertising creatives and their clients. Creative folk in British advertising pride themselves on their populist grasp of culture, their feeling for the great laddish themes of music, humour and sport. They are youthful themes with huge prestige in London's Soho, hub of the advertising industry, where every creative imagines himself as a cross between Damien Hirst and James Brown (the former editor of Loaded magazine).

Sport has been made class-safe and aesthetically OK by the labours of a whole generation of middle-class pioneers, from Brian Glanville through to author Nick Hornby. Hornby made it all possible for short, unathletic, introverted middle-class "boys" (well into their thirties) who wanted to identify with their football teams more than their wives, families or jobs. That top young sports folk now wear Gucci and Prada labels, rather than Top Man, certainly helped improve sport's image for a style- conscious audience.

Loaded, the magazine for superannuated lads which launched in 1993, helped too. It recruited an astonishing number of readers that no one in the magazine trade had even realised were there to a diet of glossy populism that seemed football-driven, like its launch editor James Brown. Loaded covered popular sports, popular people, the lifestyle and drink. It had famous "babes" taking their clothes off, rather than "relationships". It assimilated sport - and new sports people - into its own version of Cool Britannia.

By happy coincidence for advertising men, who like to feel that they are at the leading edge, sport, music and "street-style" have grown increasingly close over the last 10 years, united by the increasing dominance of black American dance music. This music, with its athleticism, its sport references, its dress code and, especially, its footwear codes, created an easy set of reference points which no advertiser or agency could ignore. If you wanted to add youth and vitality to almost any situation, sport and sports stars were the answer.

The massive growth in the sports shoe market has driven everything in sports marketing over the last decade. The real battle in the 1998 World Cup, according to the aficionados, was the fight between Nike and Adidas for the soul of the world's soccer-loving youth. A global, high-growth, high-margin fashion business like training shoes means huge advertising ratios and huge spends. Analysts reckon the main brands spent easily more than $1bn on advertising and sponsorship last year. And that is cultural influence at scale.

They've chosen to use it; sports shoe advertising has been some of the most consistently visible work, with the clearest creative and cultural agenda you could hope to find. The sports shoe brands are selling very powerful dreams - of escape, self-realisation and peer group admiration - to children and young people. The agenda is to identify the major brands with relevant sports heroes, street style and music, in that order, and to make every pair into a message of hope.

If sports shoe advertising has forced the pace for sports marketing, then Nike has historically driven its sector. Nike is a story in itself (and they know it; it's the story they tell in their American theme-park shops, the Nike Towns). Nike comes from Portland, Oregon, the 1960s invention of a former university track sports star. And so too does its lead advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy. One of the world's more influential marketeers has foregone Madison Avenue - even Chicago - for a small agency which has grown in a lop-sided way to Amsterdam and London, both European "capitals of cool". And the Nike output - initially all those basketball stars, tall, black and reaching for the skies - sent a new version of the classic American message. From Samuel Smiles through to Anybody Can Do Anything, they would be saying "Just do it". Nike added the behavioural therapist's language and the unmistakable Nike tick (or "swoosh").

Just do what? said the critics (and during the early 1990s period of gangsta rap, ghetto muggings and murders over new training shoes, they said a whole lot more about that message). But the kids needed no translation and no excuses. With Nike you could walk as tall as you liked; with Nike the kid from the wrong side of tracks could triumph and be cheered to the echo by friends in that freeze-frame moment of triumph.

It was a message that echoed precisely what the big young-audience films of the 1980s - from Top Gun to Flashdance - had been saying.

If the sports shoe advertisers had clear objectives, a clear target market and a familiar set of messages in line with the "big picture" messages of the 1980s - and 1980s America in particular - nonetheless they developed a distinctive way of expressing them. Their agencies created advertising that looked and sounded different, and was very strongly branded in every frame, in every poster, in every magazine treatment. They created the very essence of sports hip, together with a celebration of the body.

Nike advertising is confident and distinctive because it appears to have been conceived by people who had been inside their target market's central nervous system, knew how they thought and felt, and could relate to it. So Nike advertising dispenses with laborious explanation, obvious devices and testimonials to concentrate on catching the feelings and the moments that matter. Nike advertising is transparent to the people it is aimed at - and often utterly opaque to those outside the target market.

Nike utterly dominated its sector until the early 1990s. It took the advertising initiatives with astonishing ease because it is, in marketeers' jargon, an extremely focused brand with a very strong and consistent vision and personality. Nike is one of a small number of major new companies whose main assets are their brands and the relationships they command through marketing, rather than technologies or conventional skills.

But in the early 1990s Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the entrepreneurial former chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, moved to part-own and run Adidas, the world soccer-boot market leader, and utterly transformed the brand and its fortunes. Along the way he built a strong relationship with a much admired "creative" London advertising agency, Leagas Delaney, who in turn developed an Adidas style, different from the Nike personality, but equally distinctive. Adidas' approach, while equally optimistic, substituted ideas and eclecticism for simple affirmation, aiming to be that bit cleverer and more authentic. The old, simple Adidas shoes were revived as the "real thing" for connoisseurs tired of Nike's neon overkill in its product design. And Adidas positioned itself closer to the product and its attributes and rather less as a brand celebrating itself.

But the story is much bigger than sports shoe brands - huge and influential as they are, sports themes get absolutely everywhere. Possibly the least interesting area of sports advertising is the real thing; advertising for real dedicated sports equipment and for real live sports events spectators.

Many sports equipment markets are growing fast and big events are getting bigger, but the advertising for them is out-spent and out-shone by the unreal thing - advertising for the most undedicated goods and services you can think of and advertising for media coverage of events. The staple real equipment advertising on, say, the Eurosport cable TV channel tends to be pretty pedestrian and traditional.

Tennis stars have advertised racquets and balls for ever and Pete Sampras - handsome but wooden - citing the virtues of Babilot strings by saying "It's the best string that's made; that's why I use it", hardly belongs in the same universe as Nike and Adidas. Umbro, the market leader in football strips, has a somewhat ambiguous position in all this. Football strips, as David Mellor can testify, are worn for real - and unreal - reasons by a great variety of people. The mix of motives between utility, display and tribalism is rich and thick. And Umbro can be a brilliant advertiser. They produced a beautiful TV commercial around the time of the European Cup, working the theme of heart and soul with an ad set in a well-observed but picturesque South American slum where everything, but everything hangs on the Big Match on TV. The moral - one I'll return to - is it's right for real people (that is, poor outsiders) to give their hearts to football.

But there's more to be seen outside the arena than in it. Because outside the arena, some of the biggest advertisers in the world have been muscling in on sports quite massively. Strongly child and teen-orientated advertisers like Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Pizza Hut - laddish but, objectively, profoundly unsporty - have bought up every relevant sportsman with a pulse. The media increasingly see sport as key to the building of "brand personality". The most dramatic, religiose appropriation of this kind came in a Sky Sports commercial (the first in a series of increasingly ambitious and expensive promotions), in which Sean Bean, actor and footballer manque, strode about a football pitch describing the beautiful game as "art, drama, religion, everything" to the fans, saying that we - meaning Sky - understood because we felt that way too. It was breathtaking in its cheek - Bean came across like the leader of the Peasant's Revolt. The "we understand" was presumably to underline Sky Sport's dedicated role for sports nuts - the viewer who doesn't want their media diet interrupted by news, drama or documentary - as quite distinct from those unfocused, old terrestrial channels.

As Robert Campbell, a leading London creative director, said recently: "It's easy to sell a football script to a client. Everyone thinks football sells; it's the new safe thing to do." Sports advertising involves its clients in just this kind of safe, high-profile, high-spend heroics. It's a role that can be parlayed into a lot of foreign trips, big parties and celebrity-hopping. With many of these sports sponsorships and themes, the heart rules the head and the task of brand-building consistency gets lost in the boyish blur.

In the real world there has to be a backlash. The Times' political feature writer Matthew Parris recently complained that sport was exerting an unhealthy dominance in polite conversation. It was all too much. Why, he said, he'd even noticed that gay men had started talking about football as to the manner born. And he'd become a homosexual to get away from that kind of thing.

This is a shortened version of an essay which appears in `Winning: The Design of Sports', edited by Sue Andrew, published by Laurence King at pounds 19.95. Readers of `The Independent' can buy copies at the special price of pounds 15 (including P&P). Phone Laura Willis on 0171-831 6351, fax an order to 0171-831 8356 or e-mail laura@calmann-king.co.uk

An exhibition, `Winning; The Design of Sports' opens on 8 January at the MacLellan Galleries, 270 Sauciehall Street, Glasgow

Deborah Ross is on holiday

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