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This article explores the history of women in sports marketing. After competing in the 1984 Summer Olympics, Mary Lou Retton was the first official spokeswoman for Wheaties, a brand known for its athlete endorsements. The box showed Mary Lou with a smile on her face and her fists in the air. She also starred in a Wheaties television commercial in which she was featured doing a floor routine in her USA leotard, using the punch line, “Watch out big boys!”
Some people would jump to say that the portrayal of female athletes in advertisements has evolved with the advancement of women in our society (or the sports world). If that’s true, then it is definitely hard to prove. For example, Nike’s campaign “Strong is Beautiful” features Olympian tennis players like, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Li Na wearing flowy, cleavage baring dresses while playing tennis in slow motion. Not to mention, half of the women featured aren’t even wearing a bra. For real, ladies? As a woman, when looking at the 1984 Wheaties ad compared to the 2012 Nike ad, I can’t help but feel that women are becoming less idolized for their athleticism and more for their sex appeal.
During the most recent Summer Olympics, women volleyball player’s rear-ends were prime real estate for advertising companies, using them to post QR codes. In a country where the phrase “sex sells” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, using sexuality in this case may actually be stifling the popularity of women’s sports. According to TIME Business, “Major television networks in the U.S. devote just 1.6% of airtime to women’s sports — down from 6.3% in 2004 — and across TV and print media, female athletics makes up, at most, 8% of overall sports coverage.” In the article “Sex Doesn’t Always Sell” author Lindsay Abrams says that for an athlete endorser to be effective “he or she must follow the pillars of ‘familiarity, likability, and similarity.’” The article suggests that the highly sexualized image of female athletes is off-putting to families and adult women who find it difficult to identify with the glamorized competitors.
How does this compare to male athletes? Of the sports figures featured as endorsers on 11.9 percent of television commercials, almost 9 percent are male. We can all agree men’s sports are more popular in terms of how much air time they receive. However, while male athletes participate in their fair share of sexual exploitation, it’s not the prime marketing tactic. Michael Phelps was featured in the popular Subway ads, which show him performing his sport in uniform. The themes of this commercial are nutrition and the relationship with his mother. Much more mainstream, much less risqué.
While not all brands choose to portray female athletes in such a sexual context – see Under Amor’s commercial, – it seems clear that those who do are hurting the reputation of women’s sports. So, come on ladies, take off the false lashes, put your sports bra back on, and remind us why we are truly your fans.