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Athletes can face backlash for product endorsements

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

Recently, the Miami Heat’s LeBron James began endorsing Energy Strips, a caffeinated product that dissolves on the tongue. The deal is coming under fire for the impact his endorsement might have on young fans. We asked Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Sport in Society, about athlete endorsements and their potential pitfalls.

Athletes use endorsement deals to increase their fame and fortune. But can high-profile endorsements have a negative affect?

Endorsements can have a negative affect, particularly for the younger mind, which can’t necessarily distinguish between fact and an endorsement for which an athlete is getting paid. Take a performance-enhancing product, for instance. Because an athlete’s public platform is so great, and he or she are often seen by kids as role models, it’s disingenuous to endorse these types of things because that product may not have any impact on the performance of a youth. Young people want to emulate athletes, and also reach the same level of success.

What about an athlete’s influence makes them a prime candidate for an endorsement?

We live in a world moved by celebrity culture, whether we like to admit it or not. We have doctors, scientists and teachers who are doing amazing work, yet these professions somehow take a back seat to high-profile celebrities when it comes to advertising and media coverage. Sport is a sort of common denominator; it doesn’t matter what your racial background is, nor your ethnicity, religious preference or socioeconomic status.  Athletes are prime candidates for endorsements because they have unbelievable recognizability. Between television, the Internet, newspapers and magazines, they are everywhere — and if they’re playing a major sport, they may even have international reach.  So, this impressive level of visibility, combined with the amazing power of celebrity does make them targets for product endorsements.

Good health is a cornerstone of an athlete’s success, so is there a conflict in LeBron’s choice to endorse a product that promotes caffeine intake? 

In many respects, the problem with LeBron’s product is that there are a lot of negative effects of over-caffeinating yourself. To associate caffeine as a direct line to success to kids is in many ways irresponsible. Unless that product is targeted only to an adult audience, an integrity problem arises almost immediately. You have a problem in terms of the message and why the message has a great chance to taint the minds and perspectives of young people who don’t question the product, they just embrace the fact that LeBron is using it.