Kwan's Departure Leaves Sponsors in a Lurch U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the Winter Olympics is creating a headache for commercial sponsors. Coke is pulling one commercial that features male cheerleaders rooting for a Kwan victory. But Visa says it will continue to run commercials featuring her.
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Kwan's Departure Leaves Sponsors in a Lurch

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Kwan's Departure Leaves Sponsors in a Lurch

Kwan's Departure Leaves Sponsors in a Lurch

Kwan's Departure Leaves Sponsors in a Lurch

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U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the Winter Olympics is creating a headache for commercial sponsors. Coke is pulling one commercial that features male cheerleaders rooting for a Kwan victory. But Visa says it will continue to run commercials featuring her.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Visa unveiled a new Olympic ad last night, but the star of the commercial, figure skater Michelle Kwan, is no longer competing. Kwan dropped out of the Olympics on Sunday because of a groin injury. The withdrawal of the one of the Games' most recognizable stars illustrates the risk that advertisers run when they attach themselves to individual athletes.

NPR's Scott Horsely has the story.

SCOTT HORSELY reporting:

Visa's new commercial features not so new footage of Kwan skating at the Salt Lake City Olympics four years ago. The figure skater shows off her bronze medal form as an on screen message reads, life takes poetry.

Because the ad doesn't specifically refer to this year's games, Visa decided to stick with it, despite Kwan's dropping out. Coca Cola, on the other hand, pulled one of its Olympic commercials. Spokeswoman Susan McDermott says it didn't make sense to show living room cheerleaders rooting for Kwan now that she's no longer competing.

Ms. SUSAN MCDERMOTT (Spokeswoman, Coca Cola): We think it takes a champion to win, but also to know when to step down, and we really respect her for decision.

HORSLEY: Advertisers didn't used to find themselves in this awkward position. In ancient times, like the 1980's, athletes had to win the gold medal first, and only then did they get the Wheaties box. Nowadays, marketers want to capitalize on Olympic glory even before the games have started. AnD advertising executive Bob Dorfman says that means placing bets on who will be the Olympic stars.

Mr. BOB DORFMAN (Advertising Executive): You kind of have to risk a little bit more, saying well, I think Bode Miller is going to be a big star. I think Michelle Kwan is going to win gold. I've got to put my money behind those guys because they're going to be the big stories of the Games. And when they're not, then it becomes very embarrassing.

HORSLEY: Dorfman tracks athletic endorsements for his Sports Marketer's Scouting Report. He says so far advertisers may not feel too good about their early bets. Bode Miller disqualified today in the combined ski event, and in the marquee downhill event on Sunday, bracketed by Miller's Nike commercials, the skier finished a disappointing fifth.

Mr. DORFMAN: Nike has got to feel a little uncomfortable about that. And the same thing with Coke. They had a commercial where these guys were in the living room cheering on Ohno, and he didn't even make it to the final. So, you know, two examples in one night of the negatives of using athletes as endorsers.

HORSLEY: Both Miller and short track speed skater Apolo Ohno will have other chances to medal. Like Olympic athletes, advertisers have to be nimble and adjust to changing conditions. Rob Brasmark (ph), who runs Olympic sales and marketing for the IMG Agency, recalls Reebok's Dan and Dave campaign in 1992. That campaign hyping the rivalry between decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson had to be re-tooled when O'Brien failed to make the Olympic team.

Mr. ROB BRASMARK (IMG Agency): There is so much publicity and so much sympathy for Reebok, they probably got more mileage out of them not making the team than if they would have made the team.

HORSLEY: The Reebok ads were ultimately judged a success, and Dorfman thinks when these Olympics are over, Kwan will remain a popular and bankable athlete.

Mr. DORFMAN: She has been so gracious and has handled this so well. I think she's going to be the most successful Olympic endorser who has never won gold.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, Dorfman says, Kwan's withdrawal could clear the endorsement trail for other Olympic athletes. He jokes that Subway sandwiches could sponsor Kwan's replacement, calling Emily Hughes the ultimate sub.

Mr. DORFMAN: It also open doors for Sasha Cohen, who has taken a back seat to Michelle Kwan's story. It really vaults her endorsement potential, especially since you've also got have Shaun White out there clamoring that he wants to take her out on a date.

HORSLEY: The amorous snow boarder, Shaun White, may be the Games' biggest marketing phenom. The gold medalist with the colorful hair and personality has greatly expanded the Gen Y fan base he already had, and Dorfman says so far, White is the one Olympic athlete who's lived up to his pre-games hype.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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