Kobe Back In Marketing Game: Nike Ad Uses Jabs At Star, But Avoids Court Case In Re-introducing His Image

By David Wharton
Updated: July 18, 2005

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

LOS ANGELES — The advertisement shows Kobe Bryant in sharp profile, staring at a long list of insults that have been hurled at him by fans, the media, even his coach.



“Prima donna.”

Conspicuous in its absence is any mention of his woes off the court, but there is no mistaking that the two-page Nike ad in Sports Illustrated marks Bryant’s re-emergence as a celebrity endorser on the national stage more than 10 months after a felony sexual assault charge against him was dismissed.

This is not the Bryant fans saw before the scandal, the high-flying superstar – glamorous, almost perfect. This time, he is depicted as an underdog, facing up to his detractors, at least in basketball terms.

Marketing experts call it a savvy means of testing public opinion, if not an ingenious first step in remolding the Lakers star as a sympathetic figure.

“It shows Kobe as a real person who has made mistakes,” said Osei Appiah, an assistant professor of advertising at Ohio State. “They’re trying to cast him as a person who is fighting big odds, big obstacles.”

In the aftermath of the criminal charges, corporations such as McDonald’s and Ferrero, which makes Nutella hazelnut spread, chose not to renew their endorsement deals with the Lakers star.

Even Nike, which had signed Bryant to a reported $40 million to $45 million contract shortly before the incident, had kept him in the background.

So last week’s ad represented something more than just a sleek pitch for a $130 pair of sneakers.

“I think enough time has passed,” said Doug Shabelman, senior vice president of Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing in Evanston, Ill. “And the way they used him in the ad … it’s quiet, calm.”

A women’s advocacy group saw it differently.

“We would ask corporations like Nike to act a little more responsibly,” said Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“They really are creating a role model that millions of young kids across the world are going to see. They could have put up someone who is not only accomplished as an athlete, but also is a person who has a reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen.”

Though the case against Bryant was dropped, experts say his image was damaged, if only because he admitted to adultery and issued a public apology to his accuser.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent,” Bryant’s statement read, in part.

A little more than two years ago, Bryant could count himself among a select group of celebrity athletes – including Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neal and Serena Williams – identifiable by one name. He had made himself a marketing juggernaut, pushing cheeseburgers, a soft drink and other products, all of which yielded tens of millions in endorsement dollars.

Then, on June 30, 2003, a 19-year-old woman accused him of raping her in a hotel room in Edwards, Colo.

No matter the outcome of the case, Bryant had acquired a lasting tagline: “Once accused of sexual assault.”

Prosecutors announced on Sept. 1, 2004, “The victim has informed us … that she does not want to proceed with this trial. For this reason, and this reason only, the case is being dismissed.”

Six months later, in early March, a civil lawsuit filed by the woman against Bryant was settled. Terms were confidential.

By that time, although he had continued to dominate headlines on sports pages and time on national television, he was nowhere to be seen as an endorser.

Bryant lost about $2 million when McDonald’s and Nutella declined to renew his contracts, according to Forbes magazine.

The magazine reported that his endorsement money exceeded $13 million from June 2003 to June 2004. Sports Illustrated reported that his endorsement earnings had dropped to about $9 million over the last 12 months.

His reputation on the court also suffered.

Some Lakers fans blamed him for the departures of O’Neal, who was traded to the Miami Heat, and coach Phil Jackson, who left after the 2004 NBA Finals. As the lone superstar on the Lakers roster last season, Bryant failed to lead the team into the playoffs.

Near the end of the season, he made a brief return to the marketing scene: Carl’s Jr. offered a Bryant bobblehead doll among the Lakers dolls sold at their restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties.