Footballers need to stop appearing in adverts...but brands are partly to blame too

Sitting at home last night, about to watch the World Cup coverage, the advertising break before kick-off in the Brazil-Cameroon game had two adverts in a row featuring England players. First up was Daniel Sturridge’s Subway promo, and after that was an advert for Head & Shoulders starring goalkeeper Joe Hart.

As a digital marketing reporter, it was interesting to see how brands had utilised the World Cup in their latest campaigns. As a football fan having just seen England get knocked out of the World Cup, however, it was a depressing experience.

It was not only a crushing reminder of another failure by an England football team on the biggest stage, but subconsciously, irrationally, it felt like a rip off. If these players had spent more time on the training ground than in the studio, we might not have surrendered so meekly.

Irrational? Certainly. Clutching at straws? Definitely. But I’m not the only one.

Of course, footballers have been incorporated into advertising since time immemorial, with varying degrees of success. For official World Cup sponsors such as Hyundai, Adidas and Coca-Cola, it’s practically a given. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it feels like the balance has shifted.

England fans are used to seeing footballers who failed in major tournaments cash in on that failure thanks to some opportunistic marketing. Gareth Southgate, who missed the vital penalty against Germany in Euro 96, starred in a gently mocking Pizza Hut advert soon after, along with Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, who missed penalties at the same stage in the 1990 World Cup.

Southgate would go on to decry that particular decision, advising England players in 2012 to avoid the temptation of the post-World Cup advert. It’s a fine line you tread between improving and denigrating your personal brand image – and if you’re seen as making fun (and profit) of something which caused so much hurt, it just doesn’t look good.

As the post-mortems endlessly play out on sports stations and talk radio across the UK, the same questions get asked. Why did we fail? Are the players lacking motivation? Are they just not good enough? Why are they not good enough?

However after Harry Redknapp’s claims that players under his stewardship at Tottenham shirked their national duties – no names, no pack drill, of course – an interesting point stood out from the rest. For other sports such as cricket and rugby, playing for the England team is far more financially lucrative than playing for clubs. England cricketers, in particular, are centrally contracted by the ECB.

Is it different with the Premier League, where players can earn millions rotting in the reserves? Alas, no. Playing for the England football team does offer financial incentives – but they’re not getting paid by the FA, they’re getting paid by big brands instead. Get called up to the England squad and you’ve got a fat advertising contract waiting for you to sign.

From the brand’s perspective, it’s a straightforward, successful way to get market share and value. But should they be more innovative than simply placing a footballer in their ad?

The 2014 World Cup is certainly going to be the most social football event ever seen; there’s an argument for it being the most social event ever seen. Adidas is spending more on digital marketing than TV ads for this World Cup. Brands need to up their game, as the Twitter audience will not take any prisoners.

To use a prescient term, the goalposts have moved.

Take this advert from Sure, which references the new vanishing aerosols referees use to mark the 10 yard walls for free kicks:

Naturally, not all brands will have this open goal to aim at, if you’ll again pardon the expression. But it’s topical, clever, reinforces brand perception – and best of all, there are no footballers in sight.

Compare and contrast with Pepsi’s omnipotent 2014 ad, featuring the requisite footballer cameos. If you had to imagine what the archetypal advert looked like, it would probably be something like this.

Of course, those adverts work because of the appeal of the players involved. But we’d love brands to think outside the box, and come up with something truly disruptive for this World Cup – especially given how the prevalence of social media has exploded in four years. Either way, it would make crashing out in the group stages a bit easier to take.

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