Keegan in land of the vampires

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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN'S announcement that he was to step down as manager of Newcastle United caused frenzied activity in all sorts of businesses. Bankers attacked their calculators, journalists savaged their keyboards, and Sir John Hall reached for the phone. But nowhere was busier than the Sugar Puffs think-tank. Keegan had been highly successful as their puffer- in-chief, and they had a recently completed advertisement all ready to run. What were they to do?

A little bit of creative dubbing. The advertisement, which is being shown for the first time this weekend, features Keegan and his side-kick, the gigantic woolly Honey Monster. Keegan is seen examining six promotional pop-up football cards from a box of Sugar Puffs. As he puts the last of them on the table, it falls and flutters to the floor. "Oops," he says. "I've dropped Shearer." In the original version of the advertisement, shot before Christmas, the Honey Monster's foot traps the card and he quips: "Great! Can I play again?"

Clearly this would no longer do. So after a hasty rethink, the highly paid copywriters came up with a devastatingly witty response to the problem. This is the new script. Keegan: "Oops, I've dropped Shearer." Honey Monster: "You can't. You've resigned."

Puff-promoters are putting a brave face on the matter. "Obviously we were disappointed when Keegan resigned," said their spokesman, Steve Marinker. "But it caused us to readjust, not to tear everything up and start from scratch."

Marinker pointed out that the campaign has been successful, contributing to a 20 per cent sales increase in a market in which 2 per cent growth is regarded as an achievement.

Such success is not unique: footballers have become talismanic figures in advertising, promoting products that five years ago would never have been associated with the game. Not just burgers and pizzas, but luxury train travel and executive cars have benefited from the footballer's Midas touch.

Gary Haig is marketing director of Pizza Hut UK, whose commercial featuring Gareth Southgate after his penalty miss in Euro 96 caused a storm of tabloid protest - and publicity. "Of all the ads that we've run recently," he said, "including Martin Clunes, the Underwoods and Jonah Lomu, Damon Hill and Murray Walker, and Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, the football commercial achieved the highest recall."

It's quite easy to see why this should be so: the image of Southgate with a bag over his head is not easy to forget, but much more useful to Pizza Hut was the enormous amount of free newspaper coverage supplied by the tabloids as they debated whether or not Southgate should have made the commercial in the first place.

Similarly valuable headlines accompanied the launch of David Ginola's Renault Laguna advertisement. What was intended - Renault insist - as a straightforward photo-shoot became the preposterous "news" that Ginola wished to forsake Newcastle United to drive a Renault in the British Touring Car Championship.

"All the hype about him leaving Newcastle to become a racing driver was pure tabloid speculation," said Phil Horton, Communications Director of Renault UK. Not a piece of cunning PR? "Hand on heart, the story was just an interesting twist for us." The fact that Ginola was interested in motor racing merely added to his attractiveness to the car maker.

Ginola is one of the exotic figures in football who are attracting advertisers who would never otherwise have considered the sport. "The demand for the likes of Cantona and Ginola reflects the way that football has changed," according to Gordon McMillan of the advertising magazine Campaign. "It has become commercial and fashionable. Product managers look at the players and say, 'This is hip, this is sexy, and I want my product associated with that'."

But the perceived "sexiness" of football does not mean that advertising executives are slavering to sign up players left, right and centre-forward: those involved with the Renault, Pizza Hut and Sugar Puffs campaigns all emphasised how carefully they had researched the players involved.

"We didn't go for Ginola just as a footballer," according to Tim Grace- McDonald, Renault's account director at the advertising agency Publicis. "We went for him because he was French and he had flair and that fitted our client's image. But I wouldn't say that every agency in town was rushing around looking for footballers. You have to be careful in advertising. Borrowed interest can be a dangerous thing: we call it the 'video vampire' effect, where the personality you bring in vampires the message you are trying to get across."

In other words, advertisers want footballers to be just interesting enough: when they get more interesting than the product, they are no longer useful. In Kevin Keegan's case, that time may be near. "We'll be talking to him about carrying on," said Sugar Puffs' Steve Marinker, "although he might prefer to stay out of the limelight. We have other options - Boyzone, for instance..."