Is Using an Arthritic Pain Releiver’s Pitchman the Way to Get Young People to Buy Buicks?

A year before Tiger Woods’ high profile car accident in late 2009 and subsequent breakdown of his marriage, Buick already had decided to end their 9 year relationship with the golfer, fortuitously avoiding one of the drawbacks to celebrity endorsements. 2009 was also the final year of the Buick Open, a PGA tournament that Buick had sponsored for over a half century. While it’s true that GM was jettisoning sponsorships all over the place as they melted down in 2008 and went through a bankruptcy and government bailout in 2009, the fact is that at the same time Buick was deliberately turning away from its traditional relationship with professional golf in a move towards getting younger people into Buicks. Woods was originally seen as attracting young people to the brand, and while he was the brand’s endorser Buick did see the average age of its buyers drop, but nine years is a long time. As Woods returned to competitive golf in 2010 he was no longer a boyish young man with a great stroke and smile, bringing millions of kids into golf, he was a middle aged man with middle aged problems and thinning hair. In the wake of the Woods scandal, Craig Bierley, head of marketing for Buick, said that Buick was done with using celebrity spokesmen and in the future it intended on using product attributes to sell cars.

Now, Buick is not only going back to using athletes as celebrity spokesmen, they are using a couple of athletes who are rather long in the tooth, one already retired from competition, the other playing out the end of an illustrious career. Using washed up jocks to pitch their products seems at odds with going towards a younger demographic.

A short while ago, Buick started running ads for the LaCrosse, currently their largest sedan, starring retired basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. At 40 years old, Shaq is three years older than Woods. Shaq’s LaCrosse commercial predictably hypes the LaCrosse’s room for his large size, compared to its competitors, but on whole it’s a fairly humorous ad. There is undoubtedly a reason why a whole raft of consumer product marketers like to use O’Neal as an endorser, people of a variety of ages like him. I’m sure that at Buick’s ad agency, someone was able to make a convincing case why we’d be impressed seeing Shaq in a LaCrosse.

Apparently Shaq’s LaCrosse ad is part of a series of humorous ads involving athletes because last night on ESPN’s Espy award show, Buick premiered a Verano ad starring Denver Broncos quarterback Payton Manning. The concept of the commercial is the car’s infotainment system responding to Manning calling out “audibles” as though he was at the line of scrimmage. Again, as with the Shaq ad, it’s entertaining.

At 36, Manning, with a receding hairline of his own, is a few months younger than Woods, putting both men just outside that 18-35 male demographic that advertisers treasure. Manning hasn’t played for a season, still recovering from neck surgery. It’s still unclear if his body is up to the rigors of professional football. The Indianapolis Colts had their doubts or he wouldn’t be now wearing a Broncos uniform. We won’t really know until later this summer when the NFL’s preseason starts.

As I said, there are reasons why O’Neal continues to get endorsement deals though his playing days are over. Manning, a seemingly affable and personable chap, is also very popular with marketers and consumers alike. It’s possible that Manning and O’Neal create a measurable rise in the sales of the companies whose products they pitch. They can be entertaining. As entertaining as the two spots are, I can’t help but wonder, though, if Buick’s marketers still have stars in their eyes. A friend of mine used to work in advertising, at a partner track level. She worked on the Buick account, with Woods. It was clear from her comments about the experience that everyone involved in the process were affected by Woods’ celebrity. Many of us like to bask in the reflected glory of a “star”, be they a star athlete or a movie star. Still, I’m surprised that a company like Buick that’s sensitive about its image as an old-folks car would use as celebrity spokesmen a couple of busted up old jocks, including one who pitches Icy Hot arthritic pain reliever.

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