Brands: How Fashion Can Define or Redefine an Athlete

Professional athletes have been endorsing products for years, mainly products that are marketed towards the athletic community.  The brands of these products include Gatorade, Nike, Adidas and Under Armor, but in the last decade there has been dramatic shift in the products and brands that professional athletes endorse.  In the past few years athletes have started endorsing products and brands that have nothing to do with sports they play, specifically the athletes Tom Brady and David Beckham.

These two athletes have moved to endorsing brands that are viewed as “trendy” and more “fashion centric.”  What kind of effect does this have on athletes like Brady and Beckham?  Does an athlete endorsing a brand define or redefine how they are perceived?  And how do these kinds of athletes and the brands they endorse compare to someone like Michael Jordan who is the face of his own self-titled brand?  To answer these questions we first need examine how these athletes are presented by the brands they endorse.

tom brady uggs adLet’s start with Brady endorsing Ugg boots.  Think of the giant spread of him sitting against a wall in GQ magazine.  His hair perfectly tamed and dressed as if he just came off the runway.  He’s peering out through the page and the backdrop is so dark it is hard not to notice his blue eyes staring into the distance.  One might wonder what is Tom Brady endorsing here?  Is this some kind of narcissistic joke?  Then you see on the side of the page in bright white letters “UGG for Men,” and you notice that his pants rise just above his boots in a way that it illuminates the product.

Now I want you to think of David Beckham and his relation to the fashion world.  Beckham endorses fashion lines such as H&M clothing and if you’ve ever been into an H&M, they tend to blur the lines between the men’s section and the women’s section.  The clothing is trendy, skin tight, and unisex, which can make some wearers of this particular line come off as androgynous, but not Beckham.

Beckham comes off as all man, wearing clothing that seems to fit comfortably and loosely.  He appears as if he just threw on a button crew neck shirt after a post game shower and rolled up the sleeves just enough so we can see the tattoos on his arm.  Not to mention he seems to have “missed” a few buttons so his chest ink peeks out.  What this clothing is doing to Beckham is sexualizing him. He is not representing himself as a professional soccer player rather he is presented as an object of desire.

david-beckham-300x400This representation is brought to light clearly in his Emporio Armani underwear campaign.  We see Beckham in a dark backdrop that artfully shadows half of his face, shedding light on nothing more than his chiseled jaw line and sculpted abdomen that could make Adonis blush.  The light seems to be getting more intense as our eyes venture southward.  It’s almost as if the light is leading us somewhere and then we hit the piéce de résistance.  His hips are adorned with the blinding white Emporio Armani symbol across a jet black waistband that seems to give off a Nicholas Cage like whispering shout of  “Emporio Armani.”

In both these ads, Brady and Beckham are presented to us as models and not as athletes.  As models they are relying on sex appeal to endorse these products instead of relying on athletic talent, which they are known for in the first place but how does this kind sexually infused modeling compare to how Michael Jordan endorses his own brand?

Jordan endorsing the Michael Jordan brand is far different from how Brady and Beckham endorse their respective fashion brands.  The first difference being that Brady and Beckham are promoting brands that are separate from their names while Jordan is endorsing a brand that carries his name and therefore endorsing himself.

The next being that Brady and Beckham are acting as models in an attempt to seduce the viewer through sex appeal, while the MJ campaigns need only to rely on the legacy of His Royal Airness.  Notice how a Jordan ad is drastically different from the Brady and Beckham endorsements.  Jordan is well dressed in a suit and tie, his face is clearly shown, and he does not blend into the background rather he stands out from it.  The ad wants you to notice Jordan, the man, before you even realize he is holding a shoe.  Rather he is presenting a shoe, which is the underlying message of the Jordan brand advertisements  Jordan is clearly presenting himself as a personification of his brand.  But how are these separate kinds of brand presentation and representation affecting the athletes in question?

In the case of Brady and Beckham there are two sides for this argument.  One could argue that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  The fact that Brady and Beckham are gaining exposure outside the world of sports can only help bolster their popularity.  The other side of the argument being that in an attempt to expand their audience by modeling non-athletic fashion brands, they have alienated their original audience of testosterone filled males.  In turn these brands have sequentially damaged how Brady and Beckham are viewed by their original fan base.

Supporting the latter argument, I would say the effects reach far into public perception and they have redefined themselves not necessarily as models but something less than athletes.  Earlier in the article, I was describing Brady and Beckham’s fashion campaign advertisements in detail.  For all my exposition I have yet to truly comment on how clothing brands like Uggs, H&M, and Emorio Aramani effect the aforementioned athlete’s disposition in terms of brands acting as a definition for the athletes that endorse them.

Tom Brady, without a shadow of a doubt, will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to have ever picked up a football, but something like the Ugg campaign could leave a bad taste in some New Englander’s mouths.  Essentially Uggs are marketed as furry, warm, winter footwear but for the longest time the Ugg target audience were primarily females.

When a typical male hears the word “Uggs” they generally think of it as a feminine product.  I myself own a pair of Uggs and every winter I get berated by my male friends that I am wearing a product made for females.  They completely disregard that they are slate gray, show no fur, and look nothing like a typical pair of Ugg boots.  The fact that they are Uggs automatically makes them specifically for females.  Quintessentially when a male wears a pair of Uggs it feminizes him, and Tom Brady is no exception.

This is further reinforced by Internet memes.  One that specifically comes to mind is a side-by-side photo of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s post game reactions to losing the Super Bowl.  Manning is noticeably stoic, only giving off a minor grimace of disappointment and anger.  Brady on the other hand is openly weeping with tears running down his face that is framed by his long hair.  Simply put, the effect of Brady endorsing Uggs has redefined him in the eyes of the masses as someone who possesses feminine qualities.

Beckham’s situation is similar in some aspects but also exceedingly different.  Promoting the fashion brand H&M has same gender misplacement effect for Beckham that Uggs did for Brady but it needs to be taken into account that Beckham is European.  Yes, believe it or not, nationality can effect public perception.

It is well known that European fashion is vastly different from American fashion, so for someone like Beckham to have his own fashion line with a unisexual clothing company like H&M is not too surprising.  What is surprising is how the Emporio Armani underwear campaign effects Beckham’s definition as an athlete.  In the underwear ad, Beckham’s face is mostly shadowed, while highlighted parts consist of his body, notably the crotch region.  It is, after all, an underwear campaign so it should not come as a shock that Emporio Armani would want to accentuate the area of the body the clothing is made for.  The effect of this is that Beckham is defined as nothing more than a good looking slab of meat in tight underwear.

The lack of light on his face combined with the contours of his body leading to his bulging package ushers in the notion that Beckham is not selling underwear at all.  What he is selling is a personified form of the unspoken female desire.  He embodies a mysterious sexual aura that women lust after and men dream of attaining.  The gender reversal here comes from the preconceived notion that underwear modeling is a girl’s club, something Victoria Secret has had a stake in for decades.  In a sense, he is feminized but more to the point he is redefined as an overtly sexualized being.

The clothing brands that both Brady and Beckham endorsed redefined them as objects of desire for women through the use of sex appeal and at the same time feminized them in the eyes of male sports fans by way of the products and brands they were endorsing.  Brand presentation and representation had an almost inverse effect on how Jordan is defined as an athlete in comparison to Brady and Beckham.

What I mean by inverse effect is that Jordan was never endorsing a product with his body, rather the product was endorsing the idea of Michael Jordan.  That idea being that Jordan’s name speaks volumes of achievement, greatness, innovation, and the very definition of victory.

There are no gimmicks, no catchphrases and no subliminal sexual innuendos; there is only the man and every thing he stands for.  In some cases this idea is shown in an ad that merely consists of a black background with the bold Jordan brand symbol and even though it is so simple it is also what makes the Jordan brand seem so powerful.  The symbol itself is a silhouette of Jordan himself taking fight that is reminiscent of him dunking from the free throw line in the 1988 slam-dunk contest.  His legs stretched out in a perfect V-shape, his arm firmly grasping the ball right before that impending moment when he commands his body to fly through the air and slam the ball right through the hoop.

The Jordan insignia is a representation of the moment before greatness is achieved.  The moment when your gut squeezes out the butterflies and turns to steel, when your adrenaline is running hot and your blood freezes over, and when victory is within your grasp you see your entire season flash before eyes.  That is what defines the Michael Jordan brand, that is what defines Michael Jordan the man.

Jordan is endorsing himself not only as an idea, but as an ideal to strive towards.  He made a career out of earth shattering innovations and game winning shots that has yet to be rivaled today.  His athletic exploits are the stuff of legend, including what is known today as the “Flu Game” when Jordan had a stomach virus in game five during the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.  He scored 38 points after doctors advised him not to play and famously collapsed in teammate Scottie Pippen’s arms immediately after the game.

Another one of these legendary moments came in his final shot as a Chicago Bull, but at the time was known as the last shot of his career.  In game six during the 1998 NBA Finals again against the Utah Jazz, Jordan sunk a twenty-foot jumper with five seconds left on the clock effectively winning the game and the championship.

He also teamed up with Bugs Bunny to save the rest of the Looney Tunes from being enslaved by an intergalactic kingpin.  He helped them win in a game of basketball against cartoon space aliens, that had been imbued with the talent of prominent NBA athletes of the time.  Again, he made the game winning shot, this time by stretching out his arm like spaghetti and making a full court dunk (if you haven’t seen Space Jam stop reading this article and go watch it).   These moments are what define Jordan, he is not endorsing a product, he is endorsing himself, his achievements, his constant pursuit of being the best and wanting to prove that more than anyone else.

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