In sports sponsorship terms, swimmer Leisel Jones is a hot property. An Olympian at age 14 in Sydney, she won gold, silver and bronze medals at Athens Olympics in 2004. Two years later, she followed up with four gold medals at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, and was chosen to carry the Australian flag in the closing ceremony.

She’s young, talented and likeable. And just prior to the FINA World Championships in March this year, Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer unveiled an advertising campaign featuring Leisel as it newest – and first Australian – brand ambassador, a role in which she joined Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman, Maria Sharapova, Tiger Woods, Steve McQueen and various F1 drivers.

In the latest issue of the Sweeney Sports Report, which computes a kind of sponsorship “order of merit” based on consumers’ ratings of athletes’ suitability as brand endorsers, Leisel Jones gained 7 “Sweeney points” to be ranked equal 18th with Essendon AFL veteran James Hird, race driver Mark Skaife and Socceroo Tim Cahill. This puts her ahead of such notables as Lleyton Hewitt, Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd, Socceroo captain Mark Viduka and World Cup cricketer Andrew Symonds.

Given that background, if you were managing or advising Leisel Jones, what car brand would you seek out as the best match for a popular, credible endorser who’s already a glamorous Tag Heuer ambassador? A prestige marque, of course. Something speedy, performance-oriented, highly engineered and European, naturally. BMW, Audi, Mini or Mercedes perhaps?

Guess again.

This week, Leisel popped up on Melbourne free-to-air TV spruiking for local Holden dealer Preston Motors in a cheap and cheerful, “past-its-prime-time” commercial. Sure, she looked pleasant and perky, and she delivered her lines well – as well as you can when the script calls for something corny along the lines of “Dive in to Preston Motors”, repeated several times to camera. And there’s nothing wrong with Preston Motors; it’s an old-time dealership that’s been around since 1912, with its roots in Melbourne’s working-class northern suburbs.

But it’s a bizarre choice for Leisel, given her potential, her Sweeney ranking and her own apparent commercial aspirations just a few weeks ago. When she split with her coach in April this year, The Age reported that her objectives were “to cash in on commercial opportunities in Melbourne” and be with her footballer boyfriend, Marty Pask of the Western Bulldogs. Melbourne was looked upon as “a land of opportunity” and her earning capabilities were set to go “through the roof”.

The chance to do a lame ad for a local car dealer doesn’t look anything like a golden opportunity. And I’m not saying Preston Motors are cheap, but the ad’s script and production values suggest that the fee wouldn’t keep her supplied with Uncle Toby’s oats (another of her sponsors) for terribly long. Perhaps she got a car as “contra”.

But the long-term consequences are potentially much more significant than the simple matter of what Leisel got paid for this particular gig. Becoming known (and possibly ridiculed) for doing poor-quality, small-time or even ill-fitting endorsements can seriously damage an athlete or celebrity’s credibility as a presenter, and hence his or her perceived value to marketers as a “co-brand”. It’s been speculated (as reported in Crikey! 21 July 2005) that even Lleyton Hewitt’s high-profile ads for Sorbent, while apparently beneficial to the brand, harmed his chances of maintaining and winning other endorsements by helping (as Inside Sport put it) to “smear (his) reputation permanently through association with loo paper”.

So who is advising Leisel? Who convinced her that becoming a spokesmodel for Preston Motors was a good idea, and why the heck did she agree?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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