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Rewind: When Lance Armstrong Rode In The Super Bowl

Ad Age, January 28, 2013

By E.J. Schultz

Before his doping downfall and confession to Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong was among the most sought-after product endorsers, with deals from Nike, Oakley, Trek, 24-Hour Fitness and more. Those lucrative days are now over, which makes it hard to believe that just three years ago Mr. Armstrong starred on advertising's biggest stage: the Super Bowl.

Check out his performance above in a 30-second ad for AB-InBev's low cal beer, Michelob Ultra. The commercial, which finds Mr. Armstrong living the "Ultra Life," ran in the 2010 Super Bowl.

Like other marketers, A-B parted ways with Lance as evidence mounted last year of his performance-enhancing-drug use. But the brewer hung onto him as long as it could, along with Nike and Oakley.

As recently as August, Paul Chibe, A-B's VP for U.S. marketing, said Mr. Armstrong had "inspired millions with his athletic achievement and his commitment to helping cancer survivors and their families."

But the final straw came in October after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a comprehensive report detailing evidence of doping allegations. At that point, A-B decided not to renew its contract with Mr. Armstrong, which expired at the end of 2012. Even so, A-B has yet to completely scrub the cyclist's image from some marketing materials. Consider this video that is still posted on the Michelob Ultra Facebook page.

When the brewer's deal with Mr. Armstrong was announced in October 2009, then-VP for U.S. Marketing Keith Levy called him "an ideal ambassador for this brand." In a statement at the time, he noted that the cyclist was "the perfect athlete to connect with adult beer drinkers who lead active lifestyles."

How does Mr. Levy — who left the brewer at the beginning of 2011 — feel now? "I have mixed emotions," Mr. Levy told Ad Age in an interview a few days after watching the cyclist confess to Oprah. Mr. Armstrong "perhaps sold us a bill of goods at the time," Mr. Levy said. But "as a human being, I can't help but feel for the guy in terms of what he is going through right now."

When A-B first considered signing Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Levy's biggest concern was if he was a good match for beer. "Why do you even want to do this?" Mr. Levy recalled prodding Mr. Armstrong. "Is this organic to who you are? Are you a beer drinker? Is this even part of your lifestyle?" Mr. Levy recalled that, "I remember him at the time saying 'I'm like any other guy. I like to relax and unwind. And for me, having a beer or a glass of wine is part of that. '"

A few years before Mr. Armstrong inked the deal with Anheuser-Busch, he spoke at a conference of the brewer's biggest competitor: MillerCoors, which typically brings in big-name athletes to fire up its distributors. A person who was at the event remembered Mr. Armstrong discussing his friendship with Matthew McConaughey. During his speech, Mr. Armstrong noted that Mr. McConaughey's brother has a son named "Miller Lyte" McConaughey, this person recalled.

After Mr. Armstrong switched sides to A-B in 2009, the brewer used the 2010 Super Bowl spot as his coming out party for the Mich Ultra. The agency was Palm & Havas, Chicago, which still works on Mich Ultra.

The ad got less than stellar reviews, including from an Ad Age reviewer who gave it two stars. Ace Metrix, which measures video ad effectiveness with consumers, gave the spot a score of 440, which is below the beer ad average of 470. One consumer commented to Ace Metrix that "as a Texan, I love Lance" but "I am disappointed to see him promoting alcohol as I know he is very health conscious." But another viewer liked it, saying "good ad, liked seeing Lance Armstrong, big motivator for me."

The brand, which launched in 2002, is still seen as a highly successful line extension with its strong positioning as a beer for runners, bikers, golfers and other athletes. Ultra now ranks as the 12th-largest beer in the U.S., with shipments rising 5.9% in 2011, according to the latest data available from Beer Marketer's Insights. And it's still growing: In the 52-weeks ending Dec. 30, case unit sales at stores were up by 11.93%, according to SymphonyIRI.

Will Mr. Armstrong's downfall hurt the brand? "I don't think Lance had a huge impact on Mich. Ultra," Jim Andrews, senior VP-content strategy for IEG, a sponsorship, research and consulting firm owned by WPP, said in an email. "And I certainly don't think the brand was damaged by the relationship, since most of the fallout from his doping scandal has occurred after the height of A-B's use of him."

As for Mr. Armstrong? His popularity as an endorser has sunk from a ranking of No. 60 in June of 2008 to No. 2,626 as of this month, according to the Marketing Arm's DBI Index, an independently conducted survey that marketers use to determine a celebrity's ability to influence consumer brand affinities and affect purchasing decisions. That makes him about as effective as Vanilla Ice, Erik Estrada and Barry Bonds.

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