Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Michael Vick's Corporate Friends
What do a major airline and the best-known manufacturer of athletic shows and apparel have in common?
How about nervous executives and a pitchman who's under a serious legal cloud?
In happier times, both AirTran Airways and Nike signed Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to lucrative endorsement deals. Now, with Vick facing federal conspiracy charges in connection with an illegal dog-fighting ring, the airline and the shoe firm are facing a tough question:
Can they afford to continue their association with Michael Vick?
Obviously, it's not a question of money; it's a matter of propriety. According the a federal indictment released yesterday, Vick was a key player in a multi-state dog-fighting operation, which trained pit bulls to fight to the death, hosted dog fights at Vick's Virginia estate, and transported animals across state lines for other matches. If convicted, Vick and his three co-conspirators could be sentenced to six years in prison, and pay up to $350,000 in fines.
Not exactly the kind of image that corporate America wants, and it's quite possible that one or both companies will sever ties with Vick in the near future. Questions about Vick's status with AirTran and Nike went unanswered today.
This is not the first time that Vick's behavior has jeopardized his endorsement deals. Earlier this year, the NFL star had an encounter with security screeners at the Miami airport, after he tried to take a water bottle with a false bottom onto an AirTran flight. Screeners discovered a small amount of brown residue in the hidden compartment, but tests for marijuana proved negative.
Despite the controversy, both AirTran and Nike stood behind their pitchman, according to WXIA-TV in Atlanta:
"At least he wasn't boarding a Delta plane," said Air Tran marketing director Tad Hutcheson with a laugh.
"I'm just glad he used the product he endorses."Hutcheson says Vick's ad campaign has been a hit."We're very pleased with Michael Vick's endorsements," Hutcheson said. "He's done exactly what we've wanted, which is to sell airline tickets. A lot of people have bought airline tickets because of Michael Vick."
Nike spokesman Brian Facchini says Vick's status as a pitchman for the company hasn't changed [because of the water bottle incident]. Nike's "Michael Vick Experience" TV ad ends with the quarterback in the end zone saying "That's not in the playbook, but it should be."
Obviously, there's a world of difference between a run-in with airport security, and an indictment on federal conspiracy charges. Like other corporations, AirTran and Nike have large numbers of customers who own pets, and are repulsed at the idea of dog fighting, and an NFL star who was apparently involved in that barbaric activity.
AirTran's endorsement deal with Michael Vick is reportedly up for renewal this summer. Given his legal woes, it seems unlikely that the airline will retain Vick as one of its pitchmen. Ditto for Nike, which also tries to protect its image. The Falcons quarterback reportedly has six-figure endorsement deals with both firms, and he receives a percentage of "Michael Vick" Nike merchandise sold through various outlets.
My preference in athletic shoes runs toward New Balance (no pun intended), but as an AirTran frequent flyer, and I let them know that I'll be choosing another airline if they continue their association with Mr. Vick. If you'd like to express your thoughts on Vick's association of AirTran and Nike, contact information for both companies is provided below:
9955 AirTran Blvd
Orlando, FL 32827
(678) 254-7442 (Corporate Communications)
One Bowerman Drive
Beaverton, OR 97005-6453
1-212-367-4447 (Corporate Communications)
Incidentally, Vick also had an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola's Powerade sports drink, but that agreement expired last year. A company spokesman told WXIA that the decision had nothing to do with the Falcons star, and reflected a "deemphasis" of the NFL in Powerade marketing.